Mountaineers Are Always Free: My Introduction to Roger May

When I travel I always endeavor to find something interesting to do other than the usual tourist attraction. This is especially true in places I’ve visited before.

Sometimes this involves music, like the time I happened upon a Billy Joe Shaver concert at an art opening in Houston. It was such a small event we were able to have a good long visit with Billy Joe (a national treasure). Other times it’s a museum exhibit. That is how I got to see the history of dresses (or something like that) at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

This week I was reminded of one of these experiences I had in Durham, North Carolina.

I was in Chapel Hill to see a friend and in a Google search prior to the trip I found an exhibit at a letterpress, graphic design, and print shop called Horse & Buggy Press. I had never heard of Horse & Buggy, and had no reason to, but was immediately drawn in by the name of the exhibit. It was called Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia by Roger May.

My childhood friend and I arrived at the print shop thinking this was as much an art gallery as a print shop. Not so much, but what we found was beautiful. While the majority of the first floor was a print shop there was a small lobby near the door that served as the gallery. Horse & Buggy printed Mr. May’s Testify, a limited edition, two-volume set of books featuring 50 photographs of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Some of the photographs from the books were displayed in frames on the shop’s walls near the front entrance.

Testify

Mr. May’s photographs were stunning and moving. Many of his photographs in Testify were taken less than an hour away from my childhood home. He captured with great care scenes from Central Appalachia as it is and has been for most of my life. I immediately bought the books and currently display them on my living room coffee table. I see them every day.

I recently showed the books to my father, a life-long resident of Central Appalachia, who was a bit flippant about looking at them. I imagine he was thinking that I was forcing him to appreciate some silly art or weird music (he knows his child). That changed when he realized what he was looking at and then he slowed down, his face softened and he looked with interest and more care. He saw something he knew. He said “I drove by this last month.” It is an amazing thing to see the things and places that you love captured in beautiful and respectful ways. That is what Mr. May did in Testify and does in his work. He displays the truth and beauty of Central Appalachia, including its idiosyncrasies and flaws, in a caring and respectful way.

Mr. May’s description of Testify and its meaning is as lovely as the photographs –

This is my testimony of how I came to see the importance of home and my connection to place. After moving away as a teenager, I’ve struggled to return, to latch on to something from my memory. These images are a vignette into my working through the problem of the construction of memory versus reality. My work embraces the raw beauty of the mountains while keeping at arms length the stereotypical images that have tried to define Appalachia for decades.

Mr. May’s first run of Testify went on to sell out. Currently, there are not plans for a second edition (although I bet if Horse & Buggy gets enough requests they might just do one).

I had never heard of Mr. May until I stumbled upon Horse & Buggy. He describes himself as an Appalachian American photographer and is most recently well-known for his work on the Looking at Appalachia project. You can read about it in National Geographic and the New York Times blog. He has a fun Instagram feed (@walkyourcamera) and a giant tattoo on his chest that reads Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are always free, the West Virginia state motto. He is serious about Appalachian and I love that.

This week on Instagram Mr. May announced that he is selling his personal copies of Testify on a first come first serve basis. That post reminded me of what a treasure I found in an unlikely place on a random afternoon in Durham.

I am grateful for Mr. May and his work and love for Appalachia. I am also grateful for adventures that lead me to wonderful new people and things.

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