Award-Winning Photographer Wendy Ewald Along With Her Former Students, Revisit Photographs of Rural Life in 1970s Appalachia in ‘Portraits and Dreams,’ Premiering Monday, September 7, 2020
The Camera Captures Family Histories and Tells Stories of Growing Up in the Kentucky Mountains
Celebrated photographer Wendy Ewald has spent her life teaching students how to record their own family histories on camera. Her seminal 1985 work, Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories By Children of The Appalachians, now being republished by MACK (UK), was the result of a unique creative collaboration between Ewald and the students she taught at three elementary schools in Letcher County, Kentucky, in the 1970s. Tasked with finding authentic ways of representing the lives of these children, she gave each of them a camera and interviewed them about their childhood in the mountains. The photographs represented a rare opportunity for children living in rural Appalachia to reflect on their families, dreams and fantasies, not as subjects, but as artists with agency and creative control. In the documentary Portraits and Dreams, co-directed by Ewald and Appalshop filmmaker Elizabeth Barret, the photographer returns to Kentucky and visits with former students, now adults with families of their own. The revised and expanded edition of Ewald’s now rare book Portraits and Dreams, first published in 1985 and called “An American masterpiece” by Booklist, includes contemporary pictures and stories by eight of the photographers. The book will be published by MACK (mackbooks.co.uk) and available on Amazon US beginning August 27, to coincide with the film’s PBS broadcast.
Portraits and Dreams makes its national broadcast and streaming debut on the PBS documentary series POV and pov.org on Monday, September 7, 2020 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). The film was an official selection at the 2020 AFI Docs Film Festival. In its 33rd season, POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series.
Click here to watch the Portraits and Dreams trailer.
Wendy’s former students featured in the documentary include:
- Russell and Kim Akemon siblings who were raised by their grandmother and made taking pictures an everyday part of their life. Russell had a successful career at the Kentucky Power Company and Kim leads a youth ministry group and is an avid amateur photographer;
- Sue Dixon Brashear who graduated from Alice Lloyd College with a degree in Physical Education, became an elementary school teacher who made photographic books with her students, and went on to earn her certification as an elementary school principal;
- Gary Crase, who was the smartest student in his class, grew up in a house without running water. Despite progressive hearing loss, upon graduating from high school Gary was awarded a full scholarship to Alice Lloyd College and transferred to Morehead College where he got a degree in industrial technology. He is a lab and instrument technician at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky and serves on the Board of the Kentucky Association of the Deaf;
- Delbert Shepherd who was raised in a musical family, worked in the North Carolina mines. He returned to Kentucky and is now a carpenter and performs with a traditional bluegrass band, singing and playing stand-up bass;
- Robert Dean Smith enjoyed writing as a child, but a learning disability caused him to write phonetically, without spaces between his words. Frustrated, he dropped out of school and went to work in the mines. He married and raised two children, but when he lost his coal mining job, he turned to foraging and photography, and struggles to support his family;
- Denise Dixon Benge took pictures of herself and her brothers as a child. A gifted artist, she is a professional photographer and videographer and in 2014 along with her mentor Wendy, curated an exhibition of her childhood photographs and recent work for The People’s Biennial at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.
As their collective memories are rekindled, the originality with which children see their world is put on display.
“Portraits and Dreams reveals the power of photography as a means of agency and expression,” says Chris White, executive producer for POV. “It’s a wonderful, longitudinal look at the lives of Wendy’s students, the impact of their time together, and how their work evokes a particular time and place, and beyond. POV is a proud co-producer on this testament to the strength of the creative spirit.”
“When the book Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories By Children of The Appalachians, was published in 1985, it inspired photographers, teachers and artists across the country,” said Wendy Ewald. “It introduced a new way of working with children, and made visible the world of Appalachia. Most importantly for me, these students taught me the guiding principle of my life’s work: to frame the world according to others’ visions, as well as to my own.
“I began to hear from my students almost forty years after we worked together. Our photography classes at Campbell’s Branch had been unlike any of their other schooling. I wondered how the experience of making pictures had affected them throughout their lives, so I decided to go back to Kentucky to see them. We arranged a reunion at the high school overlooking the now depressed coal town of Whitesburg. I was nervous, but hopeful to meet up with the students. Quickly I saw they had turned out to be cheerful, funny adults who for the most part had succeeded in life-far beyond what I had hoped. I was overjoyed.”
In Portraits and Dreams what also emerges is the unbreakable, timeless bond between teacher and student and the transformative power of art. The film is a POV co-production with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.
About the Filmmakers
Elizabeth Barret, Co-Director/Producer
Elizabeth Barret has served in principal roles on approximately a dozen films and television programs. Born and raised in the east Kentucky coalfields, she joined Appalshop, Inc in 1973 as a first-generation filmmaker trainee. Her body of work is shaped by the history, culture, and social issues of Appalachia, centering the perspective of Appalachian people and paying particular attention to women’s histories and enduring folk traditions. Barret’s best known film is Stranger With a Camera, a self-reflexive documentary meditation on media representation and the consequences of image making. The film premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast nationally on the PBS series POV, as well as circulated at venues including MoMA (NY), Yerba Buena (SF) and the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao). Barret is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, and Kentucky Arts Council Al Smith Fellowship in Media Arts. Her work has been honored and presented at the Sundance Film Festival, American Film Festival, Margaret Mead Film Festival, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, among others. In addition to her ongoing work as a community-based filmmaker, Barret serves as Director of the Appalshop Archive which safeguards and improves access to regional moving image collections, and engages the public and researchers with these unique materials.
Wendy Ewald, Co-Director/Producer
Wendy Ewald has collaborated in art projects with children, families, women and teachers around the world and in the United States for over 50 years. She has published 12 books and received many honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship. “Portraits and Dreams” was her first book published in 1985. The expanded and updated edition will be published in September 2020.
Ewald created “Memories from the Past Centuries” for the exhibition “To the Rescue: Eight Artists in an Archive” shown at the International Center of Photography and other museums. In the archive of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Ewald found case histories of children to be adopted after World War II. She worked with American students of the same age to create a two screen projection that inquired into their notion of history and ideas of what life was like for refugee children after the Holocaust. Her other production “On Reading” is an installation created for the Rhode Island Institute of Design Museum. The multi-screen installation focuses on the experience of elementary school children with learning disabilities and brings the viewer into their struggle to read. Portraits and Dreams is Ewald’s first film project.
Robert Salyer, Producer
Robert Salyer is a documentary artist from the central Appalachian coalfields of southwest Virginia. Trained in media at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky and an Appalshop staff member from 1998 to 2014, Robert produced and edited SLUDGE, a documentary that examines a major Kentucky coal-waste spill and its effects on the environment and the community. Robert has worked as a resident artist at HBCU Kentucky State University, was a mentor for the NYU Tisch School/Appalshop Exchange and a workshop instructor for Appalshop’s youth media training program, Appalachian Media Institute. Robert’s work has been screened extensively in the U.S. and abroad, and has been included in such exhibitions such as MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight and the Film Festival Dokumenter in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, among others.
Recently, Robert was the associate producer for “Class of ‘27”, a documentary television program that aired nationally on PBS and was a recipient of a duPont-Columbia University Award in 2017. Robert resides in New York’s Hudson Valley and works as a consultant with American Documentary, Inc. and independently pursues documentary film production and editing projects.
Portraits and Dreams Credits:
Running Time: 52 minutes
Directors: Elizabeth Barret, Wendy Ewald
Producers: Elizabeth Barret, Wendy Ewald, Robert Salyer
Featuring: Russell Akemon, Kim Akemon Bolling, Gary Crase, Denise Dixon Benge, Sue Dixon Brashear, Delbert Shepherd, Robert Dean Smith, Johnny Wilder
Camera:Peter Pearce, Robert Salyer
Editors: Donal Mosher, Michael Palmieri
Music: Ted Savarese
Field Sound Mixing: Shawn Lind, Micahel Miller, Robert Salyer
Re-Recording mixer: Paul James Zahnley, CAS
Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White
Produced by American Documentary, POV is the longest-running independent documentary showcase on American television. Since 1988, POV has presented films on PBS that capture the full spectrum of the human experience, with a long commitment to centering women and people of color in front of, and behind, the camera. It's on POV where American television audiences were introduced to groundbreaking works like Tongues Untied, The Act of Killing and American Promise and innovative filmmakers including Jonathan Demme, Nanfu Wang, and Laura Poitras. In 2018, POV Shorts launched as one of the first PBS series dedicated to bold and timely short-form documentaries. Over a generation, POV has championed accessibility and innovation in nonfiction storytelling. POV Engage works with educators, community organizations and PBS stations to present hundreds of free screenings every year, inspiring dialogue around today's most pressing social issues. The series' interactive arm, POV Spark, creates and advances experiential forms of storytelling and programming, redefining U.S. public media to be more inclusive of emerging technologies and interactive makers.
POV films and projects have won 38 Emmy Awards, 25 George Foster Peabody Awards, 14 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards and the first-ever George Polk Documentary Film.
About American Documentary, Inc.
American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Wyncote Foundation, Reva & David Logan Foundation, Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding comes from Acton Family Giving, Nancy Blachman and David desJardins, Bertha Foundation, The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Charitable Trust, Park Foundation, Sage Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, Chris and Nancy Plaut, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee and public television viewers. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.
Appalshop, Inc, began as a community film workshop in the Appalachian mountains in 1969. Fifty years later, Appalshop is still making films about Appalachia, and has grown to now also operate a radio station, a theater, a public art gallery, a record label, a regional archive, a youth media training program, and a community development program — all aimed at documenting and revitalizing the traditions and creativity of the people of the Appalachian mountains. Appalshop tells stories that commercial industries don’t tell, challenges stereotypes with Appalachian voices, and does it all with artists who are from and committed to the region.
MACK is an independent art and photography publishing house based in London. Mack works with established and emerging artists, writers and curators, and cultural institutions, releasing between 20-25 books per year. The publisher was founded in 2010 in London by Michael Mack.