"Wouldn't you want to party with a baby?"

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Photograph of Scott McClanahan by Stacy Kranitz

Scott McClanahan in Conversation with Stacy Kranitz

I was introduced to photographer Stacy Kranitz’s work through Scott McClanahan, author of Crapalachia and Hill William. Krantiz’s images are visceral and haunting, but never betray her subjects. It seemed to me that she took the same care and tenderness in photographing the people of Appalachia as Scott did in his writing of them. I felt a sense of protection over Appalachia coming through in both of their work and thought it would be interesting to pair them to discuss exoticizing poverty, insider vs. outsider artists, and problematic representations of culture.

Karolina Waclawiak

I. PORK

SCOTT MCLANAHAN: I don’t think you answered why you like to take pictures of guys without their shirts on.

STACY KRANITZ: That is easy to answer. When I first started traveling, I learned that being a woman traveling alone actually made you a real target. I was sexualized and it was very aggressive. So I thought a nice way to react to that was to sexualize young boys. So that is what that started as. But it is really easy for me to fall in love, and I have a type, and that type has their shirt off all day.

SM: [Looking over the notes of topics] I really like your topics. “Mountaintop Removal.”

SK: Well I really wanted to say the rape of Appalachia a lot in this interview and I thought, mountaintop removal is the physical manifestation of the rape of Appalachia. I was just looking for different ways that I could get that phrase in.

Okay, so we are just going to see if we agree on what we are talking about. Is that ok?

SM: Yeah, sure.

SK: Do we agree that Appalachia is a place where there is an extensive history of exploitation?

SM: Yeah but I think that’s true about anywhere. Like even LA or the surrounding areas of LA. All those poor little towns around there that dry up because LA is stealing their water.

SK: Well, do you agree that when academics and non-profit organizations talk about Appalachia that they say that there is exploitation?

SM: Well of course, it’s a way to make money. They all have the same spiel. It’s almost like they went to the same schools together and learned the same sort of language.

SK: Like Zombies.

SM: Like Zombies, exactly.

SK: But would you agree with this, that Appalachia is a place that’s been forced into a position of representing poverty in America?

SM: Oh of course, yeah. I think that’s true. And I think that whether it’s Eleanor Roosevelt or Jacquelyn Kennedy or whoever, there is always that photo opportunity where you can come have your picture taken with some poor people.

SK: The LBJ image, where he’s on the porch in Inez, Kentucky with an unemployed coal miner, who then thirty years later was charged with poisoning his own child.

SM: Oh really, oh my god. See there’s another LBJ picture at the Greenbrier. I think he’s getting on the train in White Sulphur and he’s kissing his dad on the mouth, like this weird 19th century masculinity that would no longer be accepted by a presidential candidate in the year 2013 and he’s giving his father a deep kiss right on the mouth. I want to kiss my dad like that. I don’t even know what Appalachia is. Do you know what Appalachia is?

SK: Yeah but it’s different, I think, because as an outsider, I am obligated to answer that question over and over again especially because I live in California where people literally have no idea what Appalachia is. So I had to make sense of it visually as a weird shape that cuts into 13 states following the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to New York. It includes huge chunks of New York and Pennsylvania so it is certainly not southern. What I really want to understand is why do these Politicians—Robert Byrd in West Virginia and Hal Rogers in Kentucky—why their name is on every highway and every state funded rehab center.

SM: Well, there is a flip side to Byrd as well.

SK: He’s dead now.

SM: Beckley West Virginia still exists because of Byrd. It’s pork, what people call pork. That’s why we have government buildings. It’s kind of the only economy besides drugs and Wal-Mart.

SK: But Hal Rogers is Kentucky’s King of Pork

SM: It’s only pork if it’s not benefiting you. If it’s benefitting a bunch of poor people that you could give a fuck about, then its pork. But some of it is worthless, too. It’s the Andrew Jackson spoil system. Randy Schoonover was the name of our House Delegate. He’s dead now. He died in an ATV accident.

SK: Did I tell you I took a tumble on an ATV?

SM: Stacy, did you really? You’ve got to be careful. Schoonover lost his legs, I think. It was connected so I think he didn’t directly die from the accident.  He even got me a job once. It was the summer and I missed the deadline, I wanted to work for the state road. I was in college at that point. You just stand around. You can probably smoke pot and hold a sign, that’s what you do all summer. And I missed the deadline. So I called him up and left a message. He called me back and was like, You report on Monday. So I guess he probably checked my voting record. At that point in time I probably voted when I was 18 or 19—that was probably the first time I voted—and he probably checked my mom and dad to see whether or not they voted Democrat. And they were good Democrats and they were like get that boy on the state road. That’s the way things are still sort of done. But even that’s changing with the State. Seems like it is anyway. There is nothing better than political corruption. I don’t know why people get so upset about that stuff. You know it’s the story of life. You’re either on the side of the winners or the losers. People that win need to get to benefit from it. That’s the way I feel.

II. THE DULLARDS

SK: In 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson declares the War on Poverty, and this was JFK’s initiative, and some of this was related to Harry Caudill’s writings at the time. Did you read Night Comes to the Cumberlands?

SM: Yeah, I’ve read it. It’s like one of those books that every liberal couple that came here in the 60s owns.

SK: I have two. He was a great writer. He was deranged and kind of a romantic and that’s what’s so exciting about him.

SM: It’s a good title, too. I like the title.

SK: Well, the original title was from an article in the Atlantic magazine that he had written called The Rape of Appalachia. That was such a bold title for that time, 1960, and he was pissed, so he comes out swinging and then they give him the book deal.  Then he writes Night Comes to Cumberlands. The idea behind the book, behind so much pervasive thinking in contemporary Appalachia is the raping of the Appalachian people.

SM: [Swings arm] Good ole raping.

SK: So then, JFK reads the book and that’s when he gets interested in Appalachia and engages in the War on Poverty initiative. So Caudill is living in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a small town lawyer, and he is not seeing a lot of changes after LBJ announces the War on Poverty. They set up the Appalachian Regional Commission but all of the money is porked out. The money is not really going to where people are actually being raped.

The rape is the outside people and corporations coming in and taking all the resources and leaving the people poor. So about ten years go by and Caudill’s pretty depressed because he isn’t really seeing anything happen. All this allocated money does not result in change and so he decides what is really going on is not just that the people of Appalachia were raped but ultimately he came to believe that the problems in central Appalachia couldn’t be fixed because it was the people of Appalachia who were broken. He came to believe that Appalachia’s gene pool had been hopelessly watered down by inbreeding.

SM: It has.

SK: He describes these people as Dullards who wallowed in ignorance and welfarism in isolated hollows. So he concludes that poverty is largely a genetic problem.

SM: He’s a good ole social Darwinist.

SK: So what does he do, he gets in touch with William Shockley, the notorious eugenicist. He invites Shockley down for a conference, The Whitesburg Conference. It was just a meeting in his living room.

SM: I have heartburn already; I wish they would have gotten that out of my genes.

SK: So Shockley and Caudill propose to study poor eastern Kentuckians inherited intelligence and then they would offer cash bonuses for sterilization. The man, who proclaimed that Appalachia had been raped, now wanted to rape his own people of their ability to procreate.

SM: There is a definition of Liberalism around here, which is cut off your legs so they can give you a crutch. And I think that is kind of what it is because I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that same exact thing. To a certain extent we like to romanticize poor people but poor people are just people. Sometimes there is nothing worse than hanging out with poor people. Sometimes there is nothing worse than hanging out with a bunch of rich people. 

SK: The Dullards. Which goes back to defining a region and declare it the poster child for the War on Poverty.

SM: Here’s the thing: I want to define myself. I don’t give a shit about defining my region. I really don’t. I think if we defined it less we would be better off.

SK: But as an outsider I am trying to come in and understand why someone would even bother to define this region in certain specific ways. What does that mean for the people living there? You have this 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and I want to understand what has really been achieved.

SM: Insider / outsider is a bunch of bullshit. If you’re here for a day you probably understand it as much as me. I’m looking in your face and I’m telling you that.

SK: But you’re an anomaly. I’m mostly faced with people who see my work as a continuation of the problematic legacy of how Appalachia has been presented as a poverty-stricken region of helpless people. Another person, coming here and taking but not giving anything back. It’s such a black and white way of looking at things and that’s what makes Caudill so interesting to me. After I read about him, I went to West Columbia, West Virginia and met these wonderful people in Tin Can Hollow. The kind of people that Caudill would have called Dullards.

Interestingly, Whitesburg is where Appalshop is. So you have a group of educated insiders making films about Appalachian culture and it’s history. But they are ignoring Caudill’s dark turn in their own backyard. They aren’t taking up the opportunity to make work that calls attention to a complicated dysfunctional narrative that extends beyond good and evil, implicating good in evil—with the exception of Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger With a Camera, which actually went to great lengths to look at a complicated and dark tale of insider and outsider relations—but that was an anomaly. Mostly they make films like Anne Braden: Southern Patriot. Your standard hero narrative. I want to see a film about a different kind of hero, about how somebody could go from being one of the most successful people to call attention to atrocity in Appalachia, to demeaning his own neighbors and then trying to prevent them from procreating. Here in West Virginia you had great heroes. You had Mother Jones.

SM: But we have another side to Mother Jones. She betrays the miners. There’s this conversation they think happened between DC and the Governor. See our state police was created to break the strikes. Did you know that? Their purpose was to break the strikes and I guess Mother Jones was playing both sides of the field.

SK: Why?

SM: Cause she’s a politician. She’s an absolute politician. Completely. All of those people are. They’re not people. Henry Miller says this in Warren Beatty’s REDS, If you’re caring about the plight of the people, you’re either a busy body or a charlatan. I have enough problems. I’m just trying to get through the day let alone trying to convert the heart of somebody else. That’s Mother Jones, that’s all these individuals.

SK: I’ve been told to produce propaganda. I’ve been told, You can’t show darkness or contradiction. No babies drinking Mountain Dew, no one-step meth bottles, because it has been shown to many times before. It’s the only thing that has been shown to define this area by the media. But is the answer propaganda. To just show the greatness of the people, to erase the dark and complex nature of humanity and produce propaganda. This makes me so sad. I look at Elaine McMillion’s project Hollow, on the greatness of McDowell County, West Virgnia and I just get sad because the people I met there are not propaganda machines. They are more than that.

SM: I think what your work does, which is great, and the reason why your work is amazing and nobody else is doing something like it is it attempts to understand the person and it doesn’t feel shocking to me. It just feels as if it’s just people. In all this other work there’s kind of an element of style—like in the films of Harmony Korine, it’s like, Oh, shocking. 

Of course you’re selecting the images. But at the same time you’re not bringing a bunch of bullshit to the party. You’re just kind of taking the damn pictures. You’d get the same crap if you were hanging out with a bunch of stockbrokers. It would be every bit as strange. And I use strange as a great word because life’s strange.

SK: I don’t actually know what my pictures do but I have some ideas about what I want them to do.

SM: What are those ideas?

SK: I am trying to make images that open up an ambiguous space. I am hoping to destabilize the very claim of knowing the meaning of things at all because culture isn’t something that can be gotten right. I’m creating a fantasy world for myself. My perceptions and fantasies rival my desire to provide a realistic portrayal of where I am. Especially because the idea of a “realistic portrayal” is a fantasy. The work is about the tension between these two desires.

So I’ve been spending time in Tin Can Holler. This is a family that has been there for many generations and that family has been known as alcoholic thugs and Dullards. I hang out with Pat who I love in part because he never wears a shirt.

SM: I think that’s very natural. You’re like a humanist in that way but it’s a humanism based around dudes that don’t wear shirts. It comes from Petrarch, the Italians and all that scholasticism. That tradition. You’re just translating the Dullards for a modern audience. This has gone on before Stacy. People need to understand people who don’t wear shirts.

SK: So, I’m hanging out in Tin Can and I’m asking myself are these a useless bunch of human beings? Are they contributing to society in a greater way?

SM: Have you ever seen, When We Were Kings, the documentary about the Ali Foreman fight in Zaire? At the end Ali goes out among the little kids in Zaire and you know what he tells them, he’s like, You have something that we are missing. Because of all this stuff that you have to deal with growing up in this environment, there is still a spark in your eye. There is something that’s still alive. I heard Johnny Rotten talking about his old neighborhood. There were rats chewing on their feet but he said, My God, we liked one other.

 

III. THE JOY OF LIFE

SK: I was spending time with these activists. RAMPS is an organization, Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival. They are located in Whitesville, West Virginia. What’s really amazing is that there are all these organizations that are raising awareness in the community about the effects of mountaintop removal and trying to get coal miners to understand that the mountains are being raped.

SM: Good ole raping   

SK: Mountaintop removal creates toxic coal slurry lakes just sitting up in the mountain. There was a disastrous spill of one in Inez, Kentucky in 2000 that was 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill.  So RAMPS comes along and they are trying to fill in the gap of the organizations just handing out pamphlets trying to mobilize the community to sue the coal companies. These organizations aren’t getting anywhere. So RAMPS does direct action. They do all of these wonderful things like, just this past month, two women went out in a canoe on one of these slurry lakes. They just paddled around with signs saying “Slurry Poisons Appalachia.” To me that is exciting but there is also a contradiction because the reality is that you are fighting and fighting and fighting for these mountains, saying no more mountaintop removal, but the reality is actually that that mountaintop removal is in decline because coal is in decline because of natural gas and Fracking. So it would be best if these organizations switched their agenda to diversifying the economy. Finding new job opportunities.

SM: Exactly, who the hell is going to go get a rock that you are going to have to melt down when you can just blow some shit up?

SK: So coal is in decline, rural towns are in decline, and poverty is on the rise. Caudill said way back in the 60s let’s diversify the economy.

SM: It’s a colonial economy

SK: They never diversified so fifty years later there is no other industry.

SM: I don’t really give a shit about mountaintop removal.

SK: You are not alone. So many West Virginians love it.

SM: I’m kind of for it actually

SK: They love it because of the great 4-wheeler ATV trails.

SM: Someone will say, Oh 4-wheeler trails oh, ha ha ha. You know what, if you have not been on a 4-wheeler you have not experienced the joy of life. This is my whole thing with the mountains. I’ve said this multiple times. And maybe I shouldn’t say it again. Maybe we need to evolve. You get rid of the mountains and maybe you will see somewhere else and we sure as fuck can’t.  If more people just wanted to ride their 4-wheelers things would be better, they would.

SK: Did I tell you I went to a community organizer training conference? It was bizarre. To get you to come, they give you a free hotel room at a State Park lodge and free meals. At first I was thinking this might be stupid and I’d rather go to Tin Can and get drunk all weekend and ride around on a 4-wheeler but I decided to go. So I went to this conference and we were eating lunch. It was an all you can eat buffet.  And one of the organizers began to talk about the documentary, The Wild and Wonderful Whites about a family living in Boone County, West Virginia.

She was saying that she was incredibly offended because a friend of hers watched the film and then got on Facebook and then talked about how great it was. The organizer I was sitting with said she was offended because to her it was obvious that the Whites, the family in the film, are mentally ill. Instead of talking about the awful state of mental health care in Boone County or the underlying root causes of the pill epidemic, she decided to dismiss the whole extended family. She decided they are all mentally ill and it was shameful that her friend did not realize this.

SM: That’s what they do; they push them over into the corner. To me it looks like those people in the film are really enjoying their life. Not that it’s not really fucked up, but by God it looks like they have experienced joy once. I bet you did not experience a single ounce or iota of joy hanging out with these people.

SK: Which is worse: a baby drinking Mountain Dew or a baby drinking beer? Over the course of this summer I photographed both.

SM: Neither. One is a baby that wants to party and the other is a baby that has good taste in soda and loves sugar. And sugar is amazing. People need to realize that. I don’t get all this crap about getting it out of your diet. That just seems like insanity to me. Wouldn’t you want to party with a baby?

SK:  I partied with both babies. So we have the babies, one baby is drinking beer and loving it. And the dad is completely comfortable with me photographing the baby drinking beer. The baby was having a good time and there was clear happiness in that baby’s face. This other baby with the Mountain dew, the father hid it. I saw him pour the Mountain Dew in the bottle so that is how I knew it was Mountain Dew. And he said it was just juice to his friends because he was embarrassed. It’s a stereotype that he is clearly aware of. He understands that it is considered bad to give your baby Mountain Dew. He has the self-awareness to know to lie to other people.

SM: The Mountain Dew is the least of that family’s concerns. Mountain Dew in the bottle, that’s not the big issue with folks in Ann Arbor. It’s not the big issue at all.  Maybe he’s a good daddy.  

SK: You say that you despise the local color in your work. And I adore it. The interesting thing about it is that it is an outsider genre. It’s a group of outsiders coming in and fantasizing about certain things they see.

SM: I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it. I haven’t really thought of it that way.

SK: Then you can trace that to these contemporary representations, right now what is most interesting to me is reality television. Buckwild and there is also going to be a holiness Pentecostal snake handling reality show.

SM: This is my thing about the minstrel show. There is a relevance to the Minstrel show. I’m not saying I want to be judged in that way because I think I am a little outside of that box. From my perspective coming where I come from you don’t have any avenues. I would have never thought of going to NYU. My thought was, Oh I should join the West Virginia Writers Association. And you don’t realize how provincial that bullshit is. Because when you are dealing with anything in the arts. It’s already a small community and its very protective and especially in these areas. Well nobody likes my work at this place so therefore I’m gonna eke out this little layer, you know a couple feet of ground. I want to protect it and then become that thing.

IV.  EITHER IT PUTS HAIR ON YOUR ASS OR IT DOESN’T

SK: I wanted to talk about some similarities in our work but there is always going to be this insider / outsider thing that separates our work.

SM: Which is bullshit. Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage. He’d never been to war. And it’s a great book. It probably tells you about as much about war as you want to. There’s a line in there in which he is digging graves and he talks about the tension and the stress being relieved from the forehead. Just a sentence. Most writers would have put it in the shoulders.  That’s from a James Dickey essay about the book.

SK: Well I’m just using Appalachia to talk about other things.

SM: But you’re not using Appalachia. You’re not using it.

You have every bit as much a right to this place as anyone else. For anyone to sit there and say otherwise is bullshit. Because this is the thing. I always say this but it’s the same idea as when the knights of the round table are looking for the holy grail and they are looking and looking and it’s right there in front of your face and sometimes it just takes somebody to look at it from a slightly different perspective to actually tell you something about yourself. My God that is what being in a relationship is about.

SK: There is no ultimate solution, no perfect way of resolving the complicatedness of representing culture.

SM: This place is so fucking isolated. These people who have a problem with your work, they are bullshit people most of them. What you seem to be interested in is that spark thing I was talking about earlier.

SK:  I’m interested in understanding people beyond, good and evil, beyond stereotypes or in spite of stereotypes.

SM: Sometimes the most precious thing you can have is not really understanding or not really giving a shit.  All that talk is just talk. People ask me about writing, and I say, either it puts hair on your ass or it doesn’t. Either it makes you want to fuck, or it doesn’t.

SK:  So let’s talk about the brain drain. You are “the bright future of Appalachia.” The non-profit organization, The Kentuckians for the Commonwealth just had a conference in Harlan, Kentucky on this very subject.

SM: And I’ve had to fight to stay here. I’ve had to fight to stay here.

SK: Right, because there are not any jobs for you.

SM: There are not any jobs for me, and I hate Beckley more than anyone.

SK: Yep and you should at least, by going against the brain drain, be able to get a great job here.

SM: And the fact of the matter is, there are no great jobs. There are no great jobs. And I’m going to be an artist. I’m not going to be at Appalshop or the West Virginia Arts Council or whatever. The truth of the matter is that I want to be unaffiliated my whole entire life.

SK: But you won’t be, you will never be because book publishers think they need to brand you, to sell books and so you will always be affiliated or linked to something.

SM: I have no control over that. I have no control over it. It doesn’t interest me, it never has.

SK: I was born in Kentucky but I lived there for just 9 months of my life and then we picked up and moved every few years. But people always want to know where I am from. Am I from Kentucky? It says so on my passport.

SM: Insider / outsider give me a break. But you do seem like a California girl.

See a gallery of Stacy Kranitz’s photography from a recent trip to Appalachia. 

Tonight (10/30) Scott McClanahan will be reading at KGB Bar in NYC to celebrate the launch of Hill William. More info here.