In the forward for Familiar Paths, Vol. 1, photographer and documentary filmmaker Jared Hamilton says, “This series is meant to feel like mamaw’s warm blanket on a rainy day.”
And it does.
The zine is filled with black and white images and contains almost no text, with the exception of an introduction, in which Hamilton explores the concepts of home and what it feels like to miss a place once you leave it.
“In your memory, all the trauma and hardship that comes with growing up in those hills gets pushed aside,” Hamilton writes. “You miss the cornbread, the gospel singing, your cousin’s banjo playing.”
The project is a kind of ode to his home place, with images specific to Hamilton’s sense of place, but one that anyone who is from here or has lived here for a time will recognize.
Hamilton spoke with 100 Days in Appalachia contributing editor Jesse Wright about Familiar Paths, nostalgia and how Appalachia’s past fits in with its present.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jesse Wright: If you could describe the zine that you’ve created and the theme, and what people might expect to see when they open it up?
Jared Hamilton: I have this camera, it’s a Pentax 6×7, and I’m shooting all in black and white for this project. And the project is sort of about, like, the feeling of nostalgia that you feel when you’re away from Appalachia, and you’re missing home. And you’ve kind of packed away all of the bad parts and just think about the beautiful parts only, and really miss it and want to come home.
And then of course, when you come home, it is beautiful, and it has all that stuff. But it’s also a complicated place, for many reasons. But that’s not what the book’s about. That’s not what the series is about. It’s about how you feel when you’re missing the place. And looking back on it with this exceptional sort of lens.
JW: What I really love about your zine is the way that it can evoke some nostalgia, even though the pictures are recent. I think that you could take many of them and drop them into a compilation from a decade ago or two decades ago, and they wouldn’t have looked out of place. Was that intentional?
JH: These are mostly people I know, but it’s kind of an artistic statement about the medium [of photography]. In a way, with black and white, I feel like, takes you out of reality. It doesn’t show you how things look to you, it shows you how things look in black and white which is highly romanticized.
And we were trying to figure out why black and white photography has this draw to people, and kind of came to the idea that it’s because it’s this old, romanticized format and it does take you out of reality. You’re not looking at a clear document of what was in front of the camera, it’s not even the same color, which that alone evokes nostalgia and romanticism.
There’s a lot of things that are photographed like, say, the spot of land where my dad still lives. It’s actually Hamilton Lane because that’s all that lives up there, and they built all these old barns. I can remember as a kid, my great-grandfather was still around, and he had a mule and he had chickens. He had three big gardens. But the barns still stand.
But when it comes to the things that I photograph, it’s like I see something that feels like a memory to me, like something that I’ve always seen, something that’s been familiar since childhood, and that’s kind of how I also picked the area. I grew up in Pikeville, Kentucky, for the first eight years of my life and then I spent eight years in Hindman and Knott County, and started coming to punk shows and stuff in Whitesburg. And, Floyd County is a big part of my life, too. And Perry County. So those are kind of my counties that I photograph in black and white.
I’m sort of intentionally trying to omit a lot of complicated stuff in the black and white ones, but you can’t completely omit all of that kind of stuff. But that’s part of the artistic statement, is that it’s a memory, it’s a dreamscape of the Appalachia that we want to believe in, you know?
JW: We talked a little bit about your ideal audience for your work, that this is sort of connecting with people who have left here, but have a connection to the past and maybe some of these images sort of evoke that connection. But for folks who see this who are not from Appalachia, what do you hope that that audience will take away from your work – the casual observer, someone who isn’t as familiar with the place itself?
JH: I wanted it to feel welcoming to people who aren’t from here, and maybe don’t get all of the references and maybe won’t exactly know what they’re looking at sometimes or like won’t relate to it. But I wanted it to feel welcoming. If somebody is not from here at all or has no ties and no understanding of the culture and how the people are and the past and the history of the place, I just want them to see the beauty, you know?
I feel like a lot of the way that Appalachia has been documented has been, “Oh, well, look at these poor people. Look at this shut down mine. Look at the struggle here.” And, yeah, there is a struggle. But you know, maybe we don’t all identify with that – we identify with the parts that we love.
JW: I think that there’s a lot of misconceptions in the media about Appalachia, and I think a lot of those came out of the black and white photography that was done in the ‘30s, especially maybe the early ‘40s, during the New Deal era, as a way to document some problems. I think some of those images have then been taken out of context and used to sort of propagate the stereotype of poor Appalachians and conflating that struggle. I mean, how do you see your work interacting with that older sort of documentary, black and white concept of central Appalachia?
JH: I definitely see it as combating those stereotypes and trying to tell our story in a way that makes people feel represented and heard, not exploited. But to be fair, there’s plenty of color photography that [came] out on news outlets last summer that do the same thing. And even though good-intentioned, this is an issue that we should care about. It just seems like it’s the only thing that people see.
Not that you shouldn’t care about the issues. It’s just that [Appalachia is] a kind of isolated part of the world, and you don’t see the good and the beauty and why people would want to be here. That’s sort of what I’m trying to do, is show that.
JW: So you’ve labeled this Familiar Paths Volume One, does that mean that you’re interested in doing volume two – where do you see this work going from here?
JH: So I’ve been debating on how long I should wait between and how many volumes there will be. Right now, I’ve got my sights set on tri-annual, which means every four months, three times a year. I’m wanting to spend at least two years, so I have my sights set on six volumes, one coming out approximately every four months. The content will be in four-month blocks, even if it comes out a little late.
You can find “Familiar Paths, Vol. 1,” along with more of Jared Hamilton’s work, at jaredhamiltonvisuals.com, and he’s on Instagram @jaredhamiltonvisuals.