My Old Kentucky Home

Images of a State’s Fading Landscapes

Burley tobacco?a type used in cigarette production?ripens to a vivid green in a field in north-central Kentucky. On its edge
stands an old general store. Fewer and fewer small farms grow tobacco, which is no longer government-subsidized.

Credit: James Archambeault

Photography surely is the most temporal of the arts. Even music and dancing permit rehearsal and multiple performances, but a photograph is limited to a single moment. The photographer can mull and ponder at length, but the camera imposes finally the constraint of one blink. The picture that results is the realization of a unique instant. Looking at it, we are aware of an implied insistence: This picture could not be made again. The light that made it is past. The photographer cannot return even tomorrow, even later today, and make the same picture.

Because it is so insistently temporal, photography is also insistently historical. It records instants in the history of subjects that are passing through time. They are seen or pictured at some point in their passage from appearance to disappearance.

Landscape photography, in a time such as ours when the disappearance of subjects can be unnaturally accelerated, thus becomes extraordinarily poignant and telling. Not so long ago, in his essay collection Every Force Evolves a Form, Guy Davenport wrote: "Every building in the United States is an offense to invested capital. It occupies space which, as greed acknowledges no limits, can be better utilized."

Davenport's startling sentence, startlingly true, applies not just to buildings and other human artifacts, but also to entire landscapes. In the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, with the approval of every public institution in the state, whole mountains are now being "removed" for the sake of the coal under them, and whole valleys are being obliterated by the debris of the removed mountains.

Under the total rule of industrial capitalism, nothing is so valuable as anything theoretically more valuable that might replace it. Anything we may look upon with interest or approval must be regarded as potentially in the way of something more valuable, and therefore as potentially doomed.

And so James Archambeault, roaming through Kentucky, photographing its human and natural landscapes, has been working as both a historian and an elegist. He has been recording scenes and sights, buildings and landscapes, that are passing, not just on the current of time, but also under the influence of a malignant economy. Some of the subjects in these photographs are already gone. Some visibly are going, and going with them are the associations and memories that once clustered about them. We are becoming a people with a destroyed past, and a future therefore that is merely conjectural.

For Kentuckians, Archambeault's new book of photographs becomes another occasion to ask, as we now almost habitually ask, "Can something be done to lift our state out of the shadow of this doom?"

Well, we have done a little. We have saved a few scenic natural places, and a few places of historical or artistic interest, and we have put up "historical markers" where things once worth saving once were. But even these remain at risk because our economy continuously destabilizes the relationship between people and land. People always in motion at the bidding of the economy do not develop protective connections with places.

Our idea of an economy is to turn wealth loose to destroy whatever stands between it and greater wealth. "Money," as Davenport went on to say, "has no ears, no eyes, no respect; it is all gut, mouth, and ass."

There is, however, another kind of economy: an economy made in the likeness of what we used to call "household economy." This would be an economy oriented to local domestic life, and based upon thrift and care. Its purpose would be to protect and use well all things of value. It would be a truly conservative economy. Under such an economy the rate of change would be set by time and wear, not by economic vandalism. 

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