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On View: ‘Appalachia 1969 Photography’

September 30, 2018

Black-and-white photographs shot almost 50 years ago are being shown, some for the first time, in the Fifth@21 Gallery at the UW-Madison Office of Human Resources, fifth floor, 21 N. Park St. The images in “Appalachia 1969 Photography” were captured by Wisconsinite George Roesch Johnson in the rural regions of Clearfork Valley near Clairfield, Tenn.

“I had never been south of Indiana, but as I left I-75 and Knoxville behind to turn on to a narrow twisting road that led into small valleys between fog shrouded green and blue mountain ranges, I was struck by the beauty and isolation of the land,” Johnson said in his artist’s statement.

Hired by a Milwaukee public relations firm, Johnson’s original purpose in the Appalachian region was to record sound for a documentary project on poverty in America. While there, he met a Glenmary Sister, Marie Cirillo, who helped coordinate sites for the documentary team. Cirillo was also organizing a grassroots movement to build a community near Clairfield, Tenn., and bring attention to the needs of the people there.

Johnson realized how much he liked the land, the people, and Cirillo’s project as each day passed. So when Cirillo invited him to join her as a photographer and organizer for Federation of Communities in Services (FOCIS) on a Rockefeller grant for the summer, he accepted.

After outfitting his three-quarter ton van as a traveling darkroom, Johnson gave up his job in Milwaukee and returned to Clearfork Valley with his wife and 5-year-old son along for the adventure. He says he was a self-taught photographer with no formal training and “inspiration for what was possible” based on Walker Evens photograph’s in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

As outsiders, the Johnson family, along with Cirillo and other project workers, were initially greeted with some distrust. They helped organize potlucks, dances, and art classes, and Johnson taught adolescents how to record the simple pleasures of their lives, along with the stark contrasts of their religion to their moonshine and hell-raising, on film.

“Yes, I saw poverty and despair but also hope and grit,” said Johnson. “I was mesmerized by a church service held on a river bank with folks speaking in tongues.

“I was touched by the Miller family’s determination to keep their home and the miner with black lung who wore his safety helmet and smiled.”

Johnson and the others also sat on porches and played a guitar or banjo with local families. His son, Eriks, may have only been 5 years old that summer of 1969, but he vividly remembers the adventure and the banjo music he heard in the Appalachian region. It was Eriks who pushed Johnson to show the photographs after all these years.

“Some of these were exhibited at Dorothy Bradley’s gallery in Milwaukee about 1970 and have not been exhibited since then,” Johnson said in an email interview. “Looking back over fifty years, I selected some photos that I overlooked then, and some I held back that were in the first show in 1970. This is a more complete show than the one mounted in too-hurried a manner in 1970.”

“Appalachia 1969 Photography” includes prints that are 50 years old, while others are digital copies printed on a Cannon ink jet printer. The photographs were captured mostly with a Lecia M2 and 35mm lens, “which meant I had to be close and respectful to the people I photographed.”

Johnson’s dark room that he set up in his van had no running water and got hot. As a result, he sometimes lost negatives due to reticulation — when networks of wrinkles or cracks form in the emulsion of the film.

Although Johnson had a rich “first life” as a photographer and an award-winning documentary filmmaker, grant money ran out and he did not get his “dream job” with the Milwaukee Journal. However, his experience of teaching teens in Appalachia influenced him to return to college to earn his teaching certificate.

His resume boasts a range of positions from teaching film and video to creative writing, technical writing, basic and advanced composition for ESL students to media specialist, and more, at high school and college levels, including UW-Madison. He is now retired.

Johnson has taken up photography again in the last few years, but this time, he says, without the pressure to earn money or publish.

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