Bertien van Manen (b.1942, The Netherlands) grew up in a Dutch mining community in the 1950s before beginning her career in photography. Though she was initially a fashion photographer, her fascination with her own mining heritage led her to the Appalachians area of the US as she ventured into the world of documentary photography. On a trip to the Appalachians in Kentucky in 1985, she met Mavis and Junior, two miners who lived in a trailer overlooking a small town called Cumberland. As van Manen returned to the region several times until 2013, she met more mining families living nearby. Moonshine documents the personal lives and developments of these families over a period of almost three decades.
Throughout the book, none of the photographs are accompanied by a title, making it unclear when the photo was taken and who the subjects are. The only possible indication of time gone by is the fact that the book alternates between black-and-white and colour photographs. For the rest, the only way for us to distinguish between a photograph taken in the '80s and one taken in the '00s is by looking at hair and clothing styles – though, they seem to have changed relatively little in that region.
Most of the photographs are observed portraits of people from the different mining families, but van Manen has also included some landscape photographs to portray the changing landscape due to the demise of the mining industry. In one photograph she shows a building interior in which the roof has fallen in, leaving the abandoned building utterly decimated.
Van Manen's portraits of the families, however, show a different side to these mining towns. She captures their day-to-day lives, including ordinary moments. One black-and-white image, for example, shows an elderly woman sitting on the porch, with a young woman, perhaps her daughter or granddaughter, kneeled next to her and brushing her hair. Another colour photograph portrays two young kids playing in the living room. The little girl, legs up in the air, lays on the couch while in the background a young boy is intrigued by some work-out equipment.
Van Manen has also captured very private moments, both happy and sad, such as the funeral of a family member. In several colour photographs, spread throughout the book, we see a family at a graveyard saying goodbye, but also a photograph of the casket in which half of the face of an elderly man is portrayed.
Moonshine moves along the spectrum of emotions in the moments that she captures, though is not afraid also to include time spent as merely passing, whether it was time thirty years ago, twenty years ago, or relatively recently. Considering this set-up, this book is not concerned with telling either a chronological story or a story about specific families. Rather, by mixing scenes from the lives of these different families with landscapes of their surrounding area, van Manen conveys a certain portrait of life experience, over time, about the Appalachians and its inhabitants.
Moonshine is available from MACK.