Nearly 37 years ago, critically acclaimed photographer Builder Levy stepped into a Stotesbury home and captured an image that would capture the heart of Appalachia.
It was a Sunday morning, Memorial Day weekend, and Levy — working on the advice of the late journalist Paul Nyden — had set out to document life in the racially diverse Raleigh County coal town. He was photographing outdoors when a car stopped to ask what he was doing.
“When I explained that I was making photographs about the life of the Appalachian coal miner, he said, ‘Well, why don’t you visit Luther Oglesby; he’s a coal miner and lives just around the bend,’ “ Levy wrote of the experience. “Luther Oglesby was standing outside his front door as I arrived and, after hearing my brief explanation of my project, invited me in. Following introductions to family members, Mr. Oglesby and his oldest son sat with me at the dining room table and offered me homebrew.”
Levy listened as Luther explained he had worked 44 years in the coal mines, the last several as a roof bolter. But just a month earlier, and just prior to his 60th birthday, Oglesby had arrived at work to find an upsetting notice: “No more work till further notice.”
“After about an hour of talking, Mr. Oglesby asked, ‘What do you want to photograph?’ “ Levy continues in his book, “Appalachia USA.”
“I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s see,’ and he proceeded to walk me around the house. When I entered a small bedroom with traditional wallpaper, an antique mirror and bed, and children’s crayons, I knew I must photograph it. With my medium-format camera on my tripod, I composed, focused, and then hesitated, feeling that I needed something more in the picture. Just then, Dora Antoinette, the Oglesbys’ daughter, walked into the doorway.”
And with one click of the shutter, Levy and his appropriately titled photograph, “Oglesby Bedroom,” made history.
That photograph and others in Levy’s “Appalachia USA” will be exhibited at the Beckley Arts Center’s Cynthia Bickey Art Gallery at 600 Johnstown Road. The exhibit will run Feb. 24 through March 29 between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays.
“This is a big deal for Beckley,” said Beckley Art Center board member Susan Hambric. “People look for quality exhibits like this in much larger cities.”
The New York-based artist’s famous photographs span four decades of rural mountain mining and community life in Appalachia.
Born in Tampa, Fla., in 1942, but raised in Brooklyn and based in New York City, Levy is a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow and the author of four books of his photographs: “Images of Appalachian Coalfields,” “Builder Levy Photographer,” “Appalachia USA,” and “Humanity in the Streets New York City 1960s-1980s.”
Organizers at the Beckley Art Center are hopeful the exhibit will draw not only art, photography and history lovers, but those miners and their families, friends and neighbors who were featured when many of the photographs were taken by Levy between 1968 and 2009.
“We’ve never had an exhibit like this in Beckley before,” Hambric said. “Part of our mission is to explore different types of art and to teach, and this is an excellent pictorial history of this area. Mr. Levy’s photographs feature so much of our culture. It’s like a trip back in time to what life was like here, and quite frankly, it’s a part of us. It’s something we can each understand and own.”
People and places in the coal camps of Raleigh, Mingo, Wyoming, Monongalia, Fayette, McDowell, Nicholas, Marion, Logan, Wayne, Boone, Lincoln and Kanawha counties are among those in the touring collection. Also included are photographs made at coal mines and communities in the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and western Pennsylvania.
Levy received his B.A. in art from Brooklyn College, where he studied with the painter Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967), art history with Milton Brown, and photography with the photographer Walter Rosenblum (1919–2006). Notes from the Ringling exhibit explain, “It was the latter who introduced Levy to the American tradition of socially engaged documentary photography and the potential for artful images to connect us with the lives and concerns of others.”
Levy completed his M.A. in art education at New York University, and has used photography as a tool for teaching at-risk youth throughout his career.
Chris Jones, associate curator of photography at the Ringling Museum of Art, which initially organized and displayed the exhibit, noted that Levy’s photographs “challenge prejudices and point to a diverse community with a proud culture and a tradition of social engagement and struggle.”
“Levy’s work reminds us that the function of documentary photography is not merely to passively record, but to interpret and teach,” Jones wrote. “Levy pushed his documentary into the realm of fine art, immersing himself in the creative process from the beginning.”
Not only will his photographs be featured, but Levy himself will discuss and answer questions about his work with visitors to the Beckley Art Center during a special reception for invited guests when the exhibit opens on Sunday, Feb. 24.
“We’re just thrilled he’s coming to Beckley,” Hambric said. “The quality of this exhibit is top-notch. It is art. It is history. It is important. And everyone should see it.”
For more information about the exhibit, call the Beckley Art Center at 304-253-9226. For more information about Builder Levy, visit www.builderlevy.com.