We have to give our friends in the coal industry credit – it has had a pretty good showing in the climate change bill, even if the goal of the bill builds on the hope that carbon capture and sequestration proves itself, and it survived the widespread attention given to the clean coal carolers, a well-intended Flash animation that was bound to bring down criticism.
However, here’s the thing: coal miners don’t deserve, and for most part haven’t received, the criticism that industry touts might receive. These are folks doing a job many would not consider doing and take a considerable amount of pride in the doing of it.
So we were delighted to see an initiative to celebrate coal miners, with West Virginia based photographer Thorney Lieberman putting together a show of photographic assemblages spotlighting these workers.
Here’s how he describes the project:
The project I am proposing would entail my travel to several mining communities, where I would set up a temporary studio in a community space – a school or church gym, for example - and photograph approximately 30 men and women who mine coal.
Initially, I envision making photographs of them in the clothes and equipment that they wear to work, but as my approach is often guided by the subjects themselves, this could vary. Similarly, while I see the images primarily in black & white, some could be done in color should that become desirable and is deemed appropriate.
Lieberman picked up sponsors for the project, including Appalachian Power, Prichard Mining Co., the International Coal Group, A.T. Massey Coal Co., Natural Resource Partners, Petroleum Products, the United Mine Workers of America, the Bituminous Coal Heritage Foundation Museum and many others.
This is exactly the kind of project these organizations ought to support, if the value proposition is that it transmutes the stuff of work into art. That’s clearly Lieberman’s intention.
But let’s allow that such sponsorship carries a decided risk:
These monumental portraits reveal the human essence of the coal industry and their exhibition will celebrate and honor these men and women as contemporary American heroes.
Well, no, they’re not “contemporary American heroes,” any more than any other contemporary American.
Still, Lieberman really does capture the pride that goes into work, even if the work, as the photos show, leaves one caked in grime and soot. No one, anywhere along the ideological spectrum, would care to say that hard work that leads to a perceived positive outcome is not worth doing.
And because coal has become more controversial, the look of pride on these faces conjures up considerable ambiguity: because Lieberman has made these assemblages life size, you’re confronted with the whole person. So what do you say to them? What can you say? Your good intentions and their good intentions may not meet in the middle and, in any event, do not put you in a very good position. They’re the ones beaming through dirt. You may be left a little embarrassed.
As a photographer – and only seeing the work online – Lieberman seems a technically proficient but not extraordinary talent. But the idea is brilliant and very well executed. The project might qualify as coal industry agit-prop, but it’s a league beyond the clean coal carolers. So credit where it’s due.
Anita Cecil, one of the subjects of Thorney Lieberman’s Honoring America’s Coal Miners project.