Blum's work shines a light on lives of those from Appalachia
“Appalachian hillbilly” is a term familiar to those who grew up within our tri-state region, but one that most fail to understand. From the Ma and Pa Kettle films of the early 20th century to the West Virginia jokes told at your local watering hole, stereotypes abound about our Appalachian region and its people.
Wanting to explore that, Oakmont-based photographer Aaron Blum, an eighth-generation West Virginian, began a self-assigned photography project titled “Born and Raised.” It's on display at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries in Oakland.
Most of his work centers around a single question, what does it mean to be Appalachian?
Blum lived most of his life in a small town in West Virginia where he was born into Appalachian culture, and, as many young people do, he considered his small town void of any real culture or history, a place without life or meaning.
But, after attending West Virginia University to obtain a bachelor's of fine arts degree and Syracuse University for a master's in photography, he returned to a whole new consciousness about his birthplace.
“I started to develop a better opinion and understanding of my surroundings, and the people who inhabited it,” he says. “I began to see that life in West Virginia was not held only to its stereotypes, and that a life there was not a direct path to a static existence in the hills.”
These realizations led Blum to investigate and learn more about the history of Appalachia and his heritage.
“Surprisingly, I learned that I was not primarily of German descent, as I had always believed, but was mostly Scots-Irish, a group of settlers most associated with Appalachian culture,” he says. “Stories from my mother and grandmother, as well as old photographs, helped me piece together the puzzle of my own past. I began to understand family traditions and tendencies. I began to understand my own identity as well as the identity of an area where my family has lived for eight generations.”
Blum's newfound knowledge and appreciation led him to start “Born and Raised,” and he has been photographing the region and its inhabitants ever since.
For example, in “Home Is Where The Heart Is” Blum asked one of his best friends to stand for a portrait, shirtless, because he knew he had a tattoo on his chest of a coal-burning power plant.
“I wanted to have a conversation with him about the tattoo and what it meant to him,” Blum says. “When I asked, he told me it was a reminder of home and was a part of our culture and that it was what gave us life and, eventually, would probably kill us. So, I just asked him to close his eyes and think about home, and I made the image.”
In “The Daughter of Morgan Morgan,” Blum chose his wife to be the main subject in a emotionally charged scene.
“She is a direct descendant of Morgan Morgan, who is one of the first settlers, if not the first settler, of West Virginia,” Blum says. “I am an eighth-generation Appalachian; my wife is a 12th. For that reason, I really wanted to make a great portrait of her.
“It is highly constructed, and not at all what it seems,” Blum says. “It's actually just an air mattress and some fabric she is laying on. I made the image as a reaction to the beautiful lighting that was in my parents' living room, but it became much more than that as the project progressed.”
Just as compelling, “The Scare Crow” is a real showstopper. An important image for the artist, it represents the first time after Blum started the project that he became a victim of stereotyping Appalachia and himself.
“I was driving to Thanksgiving dinner in Tyler County in West Virginia, and I happened upon this bird hanging from a tree,” he says. “I was certain it was some type of cult ritual or some highly sinister hillbilly. I later learned that I was wrong, and that it is a way to keep crows out of your cornfields and is where the term ‘scarecrow' actually comes from. Crows understand mortality and, if you hang one up, they understand that they will be next.”
“The Hannibal Dam” is another image culled from Blum's local landscape. An image is of the dam in his hometown — it is somewhat of an odd-looking dam.
“I don't know how many times I have driven by it and never made a photograph, but that morning, I knew it was just right,” he says. “The fog and the mist and the light were all just perfect, and I knew I wanted to photograph it then because the light is such an important part of my understanding of the region. It really is a big part of how people understand the area. It's dark and mysterious, and that day it all just came together.”
Finally, family plays a role again in “The Living Room” which depicts Blum's family's formal living room.
“This is the room that no one is ever allowed in except when company comes over or there is a holiday,” he says. “I think the culture aspect of having a formal sitting room is something that I always associated with Appalachia and seemed at odds with many stereotypical views of the region, and that is why I created the image.”
Blum says producing artwork in this way is challenging not only to others, but himself. “Finding that line of what is, and is not, acceptable to me becomes very important,” he says. “I want to know how I am capable of forming my own stereotypes and how I can be a detriment to my own identity.
“This process gives others insight into my internal struggle of finding what it means to be Appalachian, and, hopefully, challenges their own versions of stereotypes and their beliefs about how they conceive others and perhaps then themselves.”
Kurt Shaw is art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.