“Boys with Guns” by Bob Hower.

Reviewed by Mary Margaret Sparks

Entire contents copyright © 2011 Mary Margaret Sparks. All rights reserved.

Rough Road: Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project 1975-1977 is a celebration of Kentucky history.  It all started in 1975 when three Louisville photographers – Ted Wathen, Bob Hower, and Bill Burke – traveled to all 120 of Kentucky’s counties photographing the communities during the U.S. bicentennial celebration.  Thirty-five years later, the exhibition is on display at the Frazier History Museum.
I’m a nut for nostalgia, history and anything documentarian, so I was eager to check out this exhibition, a part of  the 2011 Louisville Photo Biennial.  Walking into the museum, a teaser of large black-and-white photographs line the hallway toward the elevator. I was particularly struck by the piece “Fiddlin’ Bill Livers” by Bill Burke.  The photograph shows an older black man playing the fiddle with a young white child standing next to him. Both figures are looking off at the same point to the photographer’s left, and they seem to be surrounded by smoke or fire.  The background provides a spiritual, ghost-like atmosphere but is also intimate and personal.
The exhibition features over 80 large black-and-white photographs ranging from landscapes to portraits. Along with the photographs are historical cameras, artists’ journals, quotes and video interviews with the photographers.  Audio from Pentecostal preacher Luke Walters and of choirs singing hymns plays throughout the rooms.  In an interview with Bob Hower, he talks of his experiences with Luke Walters, whose quotes also line the walls of the show.  By listening to the artist’s memories from that event, I was able to view the photographs in a new light, enhancing my experience as a viewer by enlightening me about the culture of rural Kentucky.
Much of the work is hung in sets such as the series on Tobacco Farming and Coal Mining.  With mountaintop removal and coal mining being such a controversial and sensitive issue in Kentucky today, I was interested to view photographs on the subject from the ’70s.  Ted Wathen’s photograph “Homes and Mountaintop Removal” shows a white house in the foreground with mountaintop removal happening on the mountains behind the farmland. Wathen’s use of shadows in a strictly black-and-white medium is extraordinary – contrasting the starkness of the white (appearing pure and innocent) with the dark coal and mountains in the background.  Other interesting photographs in the series include a burning coal truck by Hower and a portrait of a black lung victim by Wathen.
A few other photographs that stood out to me were “Boys with Guns” by Hower featuring a close-up portrait of two young boys. One is carrying a rifle, and both boys exude a serious and calm quality while also looking extremely fragile and innocent.  I also enjoyed the collage photo “’57 Chevys” by Burke.  It provides a lighthearted and humorous dissonance to the more serious work in the exhibit that weighs heavily on the viewer.  I also enjoyed another light spirited photograph entitled “Couple with White Cadillac” by Hower. This piece is how I imagined the 1970s – big bell bottoms, large white Cadillac, and frizzy afro hairdos. 
Rough Road: Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project 1975-1977 will be on display at the Frazier History Museum through January 2012.  The exhibition is a new venture for the museum, helping to establish them as a cultural institution, not just a place of history.
The Frazier History Museum also has an exhibition entitled My Brother My Enemy about the Civil War on display through April 2012.  Opening on December 10, the museum will be unveiling their new permanent collection of toy soldiers that will be on display throughout the entire building.  And of course visitors can view artifacts from the Royal Armories of England. The Frazier History Museum is the only museum outside of the Tower of London to exhibit these items.

“Fiddlin’ Bill Ivers” by Bill Burke.
The Frazier History Museum is located at 829 Main Street. 
They are open Monday-Saturday 9AM-5PM, Sunday 12-5PM.