Appalachia USA is an epic documentary project by the New York-based photographer Builder Levy (b. 1942) that presents life and labor in coal mining communities through lush black and white photographs. Levy connects us to the heart of coal mining, bringing us deep underground where miners toil at the arduous and sometimes perilous work.
Through Levy’s adept, empathetic portraiture, we also connect to the miners on a personal level, and throughout the series, we come to experience a sense of cultural and social space. His lens captures the intimate interiors of family homes, takes in the natural beauty of the landscape (even as it is marred through mining) and captures the distinctive rural vernacular and material culture that marks the region’s unique identity. Appalachia USA attends to the turbulent politics of economics and labor that have revolved around coal mining in America. With the emotional realism of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornan, Levy documents the picket lines of striking miners and their families, and the organization of communities to improve their standard of life.
Levy began this work in 1968 and continued exploring the region for over forty years. Initially the project was a labor of love, supported by his teacher’s salary—he taught at-risk adolescents in NYC for thirty-five years. Later he was funded by grants including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship to complete the project. He undertook the Appalachian project as a personal commitment to social justice and employed the documentary tradition to both record and teach others about the social landscape of America. In doing so, he hoped to dispel popular “hillbilly” stereotypes by presenting his subjects in a way that emphasizes their humanity and dignity.