The Historical Essay - Part 1

Thomas Dublin and Melissa Doak

Selection of Harvan photographs laid out horizontally.

Historical Essay Introduction | Historical Essay 1 | Historical Essay 2

The tradition of documentary photography in the United States stretches back for almost 150 years. Matthew Brady documented the death and destruction of the Civil War; at the turn of the twentieth century, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine photographed immigrant and working class life in American cities. The genre reached its zenith during the Depression with the remarkable documentary photography of the Farm Security Administration, which included the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Gordon Parks.[1] That tradition lives on in the recent work of Earl Dotter, Milton Rogovin, Bill Bamberger, and in George Harvan, the subject of this retrospective.[2]

The underlined, colored text segments in this essay are links that will take you either to photographs discussed in the essay, World Wide Web sites related to the substance of the essay, or portions of the oral history transcripts that pertain to the text. Photographs will appear in overlay windows which you can close when you are ready to return to the essay. From the linked Web sites or portions of the oral history transcripts, you will need to use the back button on your browser to return to the text of the historical essay.

Although George Harvan never worked in the mines of Pennsylvania's Panther Valley, after World War II he returned to his hometown in northeastern Pennsylvania and began to photograph workers in the mines. Over a fifty-year period he created an extensive documentary record of the last generation of underground miners in the Valley. His keen eye for the human condition is reflected not only in his images of the anthracite region but also in the photographs he took wherever he went: Amish country, Gettysburg, along the Lehigh River, in abandoned anthracite breakers, and New York City. He experimented with different kinds of cameras and techniques, moving over time from a straightforward documentary style to more expressive and interpretive approaches. Most recently he has employed pinhole and Polaroid cameras to look at familiar objects in unfamiliar ways.

Harvan himself has summarized his life and work in characteristically modest terms: "During the past fifty years, I have been blessed for some reason with the opportunity to document on film the hard work and simple lifestyle of a rugged band of men—the coal miners of the Panther Valley. Their friendship and the trust placed in me by these miners has been reciprocated by my commitment to record as truthfully as possible the lives of the men who mined the coal."[3] Harvan's story is indelibly intertwined with that of the region where he has lived for almost eighty years and which he photographed for more than fifty. It is a story that also encompasses and speaks to broader social, economic, and cultural issues posed by modern American life, as well as fundamental questions on the human condition.

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George Harvan and the Panther Valley

The anthracite region of Pennsylvania stretches northeast from Tower City to Carbondale, a narrow swath covering slightly less than five hundred square miles in a triangular five-county area. The region was little more than a wilderness at the turn of the nineteenth century, but with the development of commercial mining operations in the 1820s, and the completion of canal and railroad links to Philadelphia and New York City, the area's population grew rapidly. At its peak, during World War I, the mining and processing of anthracite coal employed 175,000 men and supported a regional population of almost a million. By 1992 that same industry employed fewer than 1,500 workers, supporting perhaps 5,000 people. George Harvan lived in the anthracite region during this period of dramatic economic and social decline, and since World War II his photographs have provided a documentary record of its accompanying transformation.

Diverse communities grew up as anthracite production expanded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Major cities like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre emerged in the northern tier of the region, while further south, smaller cities and towns dotted a distinctly rural landscape. George Harvan's hometown, Lansford, with a population of about 9,600 in 1920, was a small urban center in the Panther Valley. Coal mining and allied railroading employed more than two-thirds of the community's workforce.

The Panther Valley stretches twelve miles southwest of Jim Thorpe (formerly Mauch Chunk), nestled between two rows of gentle mountain ridges. It begins in the hills above the Lehigh River and ends where the Little Schuylkill River cuts through surrounding mountains. Marking the divide between the Lehigh and Schuylkill watersheds, the Valley contains rich deposits of anthracite coal that for 150 years provided the economic lifeblood of its communities. First settled by residents of English, Irish, and Welsh origins, by the early twentieth century the region attracted increasing numbers of central, eastern, and southern European immigrants with the lure of good-paying jobs in and around the mines; among them were George Harvan's parents.

Andrew and Anna Harvan emigrated from Czechoslovakia with their three daughters shortly after World War I, and soon found their way to northeastern Pennsylvania. Their son George was born in 1921 in the Panther Valley town of Lansford. Andrew Harvan worked in the mines of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, a leading anthracite firm that employed about 8,000 workers in fourteen major mines and breakers. Times were hard for the Harvan family in these years, especially with the coming of the Great Depression.
The 
          Harvan family, 1922. Anna Harvan holds George in her lap.
The Harvan family, 1922. Anna
Harvan holds George in her lap.
The Depression meant that Panther Valley mines operated only sporadically; miners commonly worked two or three days a week during the thirties. Andrew Harvan developed black lung, which no doubt slowed him down and lowered his earnings. Like other miners' children, George Harvan was expected to make contributions to help support his family. In his teenage years, he took a wheelbarrow out of town and picked coal where veins cropped out of the ground. As he recalled, "My job was to fill the coal bin every summer; . . . that's how we heated our house, and I had to make sure there was no slate along with the coal—it had to be all coal."[4].

Harvan's family background and upbringing were very much apiece with that of his neighbors. The American-born son of Slovak immigrants, he was confirmed at St. Michael's Church, the Slovak Catholic Church in Lansford. He attended the West Ward School and Lansford High School and had much in common with his classmates. During the Depression, like others his age, he picked coal, stood in soup lines, and sorted through stacks of donated shoes. He did poorly in school, recalling, "I can't ever remember taking a book home to study. My parents wanted me to go to school, but they never knew enough to say, 'Well, do this, because this is the way you should do it.' So I never really studied."[5] Immigrant parents, who struggled to speak English themselves, were not in much of a position to prod their son to excel in school. Harvan expected to follow his older sisters, who left Lansford after graduating from high school, to find work in New York City. The Depression forced young people to leave the area; the mines simply were not hiring new workers, and there were more than enough unemployed or underemployed experienced miners in 1938 and 1939 to fill any vacancies that arose.

George Harvan at a CCC Camp, 1941.
George Harvan at
a CCC Camp, 1941.
The New Deal and World War II provided the employment that drew George Harvan out of Lansford. In 1939 he began a two-year stint at a soil conservation camp run by the Civilian Conservation Corps on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. He then worked for half-a-year at an air depot near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania repairing and building planes as part of the nation's preparedness campaign in the first years of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to go with a group of depot employees to Hawaii where he assembled B-26's for the air campaign in the Pacific. He was drafted while working in Hawaii and served in the military there until the end of the war. Following the war, Harvan served as a photographer in the Army of occupation in Japan.

Harvan's education in photography began in his eighteen months of service in Japan. He ran the Army photo lab and learned to develop film and make prints. He began to take photographs as well. He took pictures of various visiting dignitaries, including Army brass attending a birthday party for the son of the Japanese emperor in the Imperial Palace.

Shooting pictures off base on his own time became Harvan's passion in this period. "It never seemed like I was happy or contented unless I was taking pictures, or out with the camera. I spent all my spare time in Tokyo taking pictures of the people on the street."[6] In his oral history, he told of trading government-issue cigarettes for his first Rolleiflex camera, showing an inventiveness and a flexibility that would serve him later in his professional career. He described how he began his work as a documentary photographer:
As I had more free time then, I used to walk the streets of Tokyo. I started to photograph the people on the streets. I couldn't get any standard film for the Rolleiflex, but what I would do so I could use the camera was use aerial film. I had some old paper backings—and I would go in the darkroom and I would cut the aerial film into strips, and I would tape the film onto the backing; it was kind of flexible. Aerial film was a little thicker than regular film, but I was able to utilize it, making twelve exposures on the spool. That way I had film for the Rollei. I had film packs for the four by five Speed Graphic, but it was much easier for me to take pictures on the streets with the Rolleiflex, so that I did.[7]

By the time he was discharged from the Army, Harvan knew he wanted to become a photographer. Although the head of the Associated Press bureau in Tokyo offered him the opportunity to remain there as a photographer, Harvan turned the offer down. Heading back to the U.S. he intended to attend photography school in Los Angeles; however, when the school delayed his admission for several months, he took a job as a journalist and photographer for a local newspaper. He never headed out for the beginning of the winter term in Los Angeles.

Early in his newspaper career he covered a sit-down strike in a local mine; almost by chance he found his calling. Covering local events for the paper and conforming to a rigid formula in his photography proved quite limiting and Harvan soon sought the independence of free-lance work. His income now became uncertain but opportunities did come his way. He became friendly with the man who handled public relations for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (LC&N) and began getting got frequent jobs in the mines shooting pictures for advertising and annual reports. He gained entrée into the mines that was denied to other photographers, and he used the opportunity to shoot a good many more pictures, and more interesting ones, in the mines than just those he was commissioned to shoot for public relations purposes. His photos captured the miners' skilled work in the massive, multi-level underground operations of a corporation that had been producing anthracite coal for a hundred and thirty years.[8]

With the end of anthracite mining clearly in sight, Harvan began to look for other job possibilities. Once again he made a choice that permitted him to continue documenting underground mining in the Panther Valley. He turned down a job with the National Gallery of Art as a photographer's assistant, even though professionally it provided a real career opportunity. It would have been a wrenching move for his wife and family. When the mines closed and his main free-lance income dried up, he obtained a job in the photography department of Bethlehem Steel, commuting an hour from his home in Lansford. There he found a sympathetic boss who permitted, even encouraged, his own personal photographic work, while he did more conventional photography for the steel giant.

In 1960, Harvan began documenting the Lanscoal Company, a tiny mining operation whose 20 employees were, for the next twelve years, the only remaining underground miners in the Panther Valley. Taking time off from Bethlehem Steel, Harvan donned a hardhat and lamp and walked into the mine to photograph the last remnant of once mammoth mining operations. He caught the men at work, resting during breaks, and sharing beer and song at the end of a hard workweek. The miners came to trust Harvan—he became one of them. He recorded the rhythms of their work, including the final cars of coal that came from the No. 9 mine in June 1972 as the Lanscoal Company closed.

While documenting this last generation of underground anthracite miners was Harvan's passion in these years, he also had a keen interest in the broader world around him. His photography took him beyond the limits of the Pennsylvania anthracite region. The accompanying photographic exhibition offers a sampling of the breadth of Harvan's subjects. He photographed the Amish people, Pennsylvania country auctions, New York City street scenes, mine rescue operations, abandoned anthracite breakers, the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, and numerous other subjects in various locations. Documentary photography dominated his work but increasingly he sought expressiveness beyond the realistic depiction of his subjects.

He worked twenty-seven years for Bethlehem Steel, retiring in 1982. These years were also his most productive as a free-lance photographer. Numerous projects kept him on the move, on weekends and during vacations. Increasingly his photographs reached a wider audience, through shows and national publications. Beginning in 1963 he exhibited his work at numerous galleries, museums, and colleges including the Kodak Exhibit Center at Grand Central Station in New York City, the George Eastman House in Rochester, the Kodak Center at the New York World's Fair, the Lehigh University Art Gallery, Eckley Miners' Village, and the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton. Between the late 1950s and 1970s he published photographs in a variety of national magazines including Leica Photography (1958), Saturday Evening Post (1959 and 1960), Life (1963), Stone Magazine (1965), Applied Photography (1967), Nikon World (1969), Travel & Camera (1969), Infinity (1972), and Peterson's Photographic Magazine (1974).

Harvan's choice to stay in the anthracite region gave a continuity to his life and shaped his photography. Remaining in his hometown, close to family and roots, Harvan reflected sentiments that were common to post-war inhabitants of dying mining communities. Many of his miner neighbors turned down job opportunities in southeastern Pennsylvania or northern New Jersey that would have required them to uproot and move to the growing suburbs of Philadelphia or New York City. They chose instead considerable economic insecurity in a coal region that no longer offered mine employment. Harvan was one of the lucky ones to find employment with a major employer—a company that managed to survive beyond his retirement—but clearly he would have had greater professional employment possibilities beyond the region's borders.[9] He stayed with family, ethnic and church ties, in familiar territory, living to this day in half of the two-family house in which he grew up. His professional career and the fate of his hometown and the anthracite region have been inextricably tied together. Because of the choices he made, to remain in Lansford and to pass up more distant professional opportunities, he was able to create a body of documentary photography that otherwise would not exist.[10]

When George Harvan retired his photographic work continued with hardly a perceptible break. Since his regular job never engaged the core of his creative energies and he had always pursued his own documentary projects while employed at Bethlehem Steel, with his retirement Harvan was free to simply concentrate on his own work. Though age and recent chemotherapy treatments for a recurring cancer have slowed his pace, George Harvan continues to take photographs, work in his darkroom, and make prints for local museums and interpretive exhibits. He travels much less today, but still enjoys new challenges in his professional work. Recently he has experimented with Polaroid and pinhole photography and has made circular photographs similar to those produced in an earlier era. He talks about purchasing a personal computer and learning how to use the new photo-editing software that is increasingly a part of photographic art—if his health permits.

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Selection of Harvan photographs laid out horizontally.

Reflecting on the range of George Harvan's work over a fifty-year period, one is struck first by the respect which he afforded his subjects. There is something uplifting and humanizing about Harvan's treatment of the miners of the Panther Valley. The fortitude, dignity, and self-respect of his subjects are unmistakably communicated in the photographer's work. Yet, at the same time, one senses that these characteristics are forged in loss. Harvan, in his photographs, was clearly drawn to tragedy and loss. Consider the subjects he photographed over the years: the Japanese after their devastating defeat; miners accommodating the closing of the mines; family members coping with the tragedy of mining disasters; families closing up homes and farms as elderly members age or pass away; drama on the battlefield at Gettysburg; the decay of a mannequin with the passage of time; a vision of the world after a nuclear holocaust.

Tragedy and loss, of course, played a major part in Harvan's own life and that of his community. There was the death of his sister Claire in a plane crash when she was only thirty-four, and his brother's early death from Lou Gehrig's disease. The closing of the mines gave tragedy and loss a social dimension—they were not simply emotions one experienced as an individual, but they embraced entire families and whole communities. Yet Harvan's photographs do not dwell on tragedy entirely; the focus on loss provides a way for Harvan to emphasize human strength and resilience. His is a complex view of the human condition, at once tragic and yet full of hope and optimism.

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The Mines

This duality is apparent in the underground mining photos George Harvan took between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, which form the core of his work. His mining photographs divide chronologically into two groups: those of the operations of the LC&N between 1949 and the closing of the its underground mines in 1954, and his treatment of the Lanscoal miners as they worked the No. 9 mine in Lansford between 1960 and 1972. Those two operations offered very different settings for Harvan's work; he developed an intimacy with the last of the Panther Valley miners that he could never have achieved earlier, when the LC&N was engaged in massive operations.

Harvan's interest always focused on the men in the mines rather than either the technology or the product. He said it best in an interview:

I was never really interested in how many cars of coal they put out, or how many feet they had to drill in the vein. I primarily went in a mine there and looked for a certain type of photograph. . . . I was so preoccupied to get a meaningful picture I didn't care what they were actually doing, as long as it was something that was interesting and I could make a photograph. That's all I primarily cared about..[11]

Moreover, Harvan took pictures as he found them, never posing miners for effect. He told their story, not his own. Harvan's integrity was a major element in the trust that developed between him and the miners. Over the years, this trust permitted Harvan to record what went on underground, placing the miners at the center of the story.

The first mining photograph he ever took was for a local newspaper. It shows a group of miners coming out of the cage that had just brought them up from below at the end of a sit-down strike in 1949. Strength and confidence are evident in the men's faces, accentuated by a broad grin on the miner in the front center of the group. Harvan's commitment to tell their story is apparent.

That purpose persisted in the body of photographs Harvan took inside and around the mines of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company. The images show miners working at the Mammoth Vein, a forty-foot vein of coal that coursed through the valley. The coal dwarfed the men, but they were at ease working at the breast and in the chute. His photos show the range of skills that mineworkers brought to their tasks as well as the intricate division of labor that characterized anthracite mining in its heyday. We see miners, loaders, battery starters, motormen, and a variety of skilled workers underground. All played roles in bringing the black diamonds out to the surface.

These miners, like Harvan, were typically the American-born sons of immigrants from southern, central, and Eastern Europe. Most were about his age or perhaps ten years older. Harvan knew the miners, knew their younger brothers and sisters, and they knew him and his family. He moved easily in the mines and among the men, and his photos caught them at work and relaxing. His camera seemed not to intrude on the scenes it recorded, a phenomenon particularly evident in Harvan's documentation of the Lanscoal Company after 1960.

Since its founding in the 1820s, the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company dominated life in the Panther Valley; by 1920, it employed 8,000 men there—including Harvan's father.[12] The operation George Harvan documented in the early 1950s was only a shadow of its former self, but still it was a complex operation with an intricate hierarchy and division of labor. Harvan had only limited access to the underground mines in these years, able to take pictures only when public relations work took him inside the mines on company business. His photographs revealed the workings of the mine, but there was still something of a distance there between the photographer and his subjects. Harvan could not always pick his locations or the men he photographed; he could not document certain work processes. He did not develop the close connection to the miners that would characterize his later work.

The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company closed its underground operations in 1954, and thereafter leased its mines to a number of small, local companies. Beginning in 1960, a group of former miners came together and founded the Lanscoal Company. That company, a cooperative of about twenty miners, set about refitting the gangway and chutes at the water level of LC&N's No. 9 mine in Lansford. There, for the next decade, a gradually diminishing workforce blasted coal from veins accessible at that level. Gone now were the multi-level operations, the cage providing access to the lower levels, the intricate division of labor, and massive labor force that had characterized mining at LC&N for fifty years. All the men earned the same consideration wage, $20 a day; and they all took on the varied job assignments that mining called for—they were miners, loaders, laborers, motormen, as the work required.[13]

George Harvan.
Click to enlarge
This small group of men worked the No. 9 mine until the company shut down in June 1972. During this period, George Harvan used all his free time to document the work of the miners; he had free rein to enter the mines, find the men, and record their work. Once he donned a miner's hardhat and lamp and signed in, he was on his own. He photographed the men at work, resting with their lunch pails, showering in the wash shanty, drinking beer and talking at the end of the week's work. A catalog of one of his exhibitions began, appropriately enough, with individual head and shoulder portraits of nine Lanscoal miners attired in their work clothes with hardhat and headlamp. In the history of LC&N such portraits would have been limited to the upper ranks of mine management.[14] Harvan's respect for the men is readily apparent as their eyes meet the camera head on. So is the men's own ease with the photographer. A photo of George Harvan survives from this period. He is wearing a denim jacket and overalls with a hardhat and lamp and holds his 35mm camera. The background is pitch black except for one miner's lamp visible in the distance. Miners and photographer were well matched.

George Harvan was present during the uneven decline of anthracite mining for twenty-five years after World War II. He also recorded scenes around the mines and in mining towns after the closings. A 1955 photo shows the abandoned No. 8 breaker in Coaldale in the distance with row upon row of empty coal cars in the foreground. Another photograph, shot at about the same time, offers a contemporary comment on anthracite's decline in graffiti chalked on a coal car being used as a dumpster: "Go west young man. No future here." and "Valley shot to hell!" While the graffiti spoke to hard times, it also revealed its author's rebellion in the face of hardship. Whoever chalked those comments on the coal car did not passively accept the fate inherent in mining's demise. Harvan had the skill and prescience to capture what he saw around him and to record the desolation with clarity and understatement.

In the decades after the mines closed Harvan continued to record life in dying coal towns. Several of his photos depict the blocked-off entrance of the No. 9 mine—the same mine he documented in such detail when it was in operation between 1960 and 1972—showing the debris and overgrown weeds that built up with the passage of time. In his documentation of surviving coal breakers, he told a similar story. One can see right through the rusting hulk of the Locust Summit breaker in a 1994 photo that shows Joe Lawson, the lone remaining employee of the Reading Anthracite company, walking across the coal yard in front of the breaker. The massive structure that once employed hundreds of men and produced thousands of tons of coal every day was empty now, save for a tiny operation bagging coal for use in aquariums and water filters. The gray day, the decaying breaker, and one man's reflection in a puddle convey the hopelessness of a building and an industry that have outlived their usefulness.

Yet Harvan's photographs are by no means unrelentingly depressing. The same day he photographed Joe Lawson walking in front of the decaying breaker, he also took a picture of Joe seated at the bottom of a conveyor belt, bringing coal from the bagging plant. Here we see Lawson not as a tiny, faceless figure dwarfed by the massive breaker, but as an engaging human being who took pride in himself and his work. Harvan captured one man's resilience in the midst of truly catastrophic economic circumstances.

As Harvan worked to document those interviewed for the oral history collection, When the Mines Closed (published in 1998 by Cornell University Press)
, he found himself taking photographs of eighty-year-old veterans of the region's mines and garment factories, many of whom he had known for forty or fifty years. He recorded Gabe Ferrence in 1978 in front of a dragline shovel at the Springdale strippings. Wearing dark glasses, hard hat, an open plaid shirt and sturdy work boots, Ferrence displays the pride and self-confidence one hears in his voice as he describes how he made the giant drag-line machine do his bidding.[15] Seventeen years later, Harvan photographed Ferrence, then retired, with one foot raised on the caterpillar tread of the diesel shovel he had collected on his farm. In this second photo Ferrence didn't carry the weight of his earlier years, but he still had the same slight smile and confident gaze. Moreover, he had liked his work enough to bring a discarded diesel shovel into his backyard as a reminder of the good times.

Harvan's long-term contact with and intimate knowledge of the people of the Panther Valley helped him produce graphic images that humanized and emphasized his subjects' agency. He took photographs of one deep miner, Mike Sabron, for forty years. They include photos of Sabron in a mine car, climbing up a chicken ladder into a chute, operating the boards that control the flow of coal into waiting cars below, and singing with his mining buddies after work. More recently he photographed Sabron with a younger miner cleaning up the No. 9 mine to restore it for use as a tourist attraction. Although suffering from black lung disease, Sabron maintained an active life into his mid-80s and Harvan recorded his warmth, energy, and exuberance, revealing a person who, though not wealthy, has lived a rich life.[16] Sabron, like Harvan, turned down job opportunities that would have taken him away from the anthracite region; he valued and enjoyed a life in which family, friends, church, and community were central. Harvan shared the same core values that enabled his neighbors to survive, even thrive, in the face of economic decline; because of this he was able to capture what was best in the culture of the anthracite region.

Historical Essay Introduction | Historical Essay 1 | Historical Essay 2


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Miner's Son, Miners' Photographer: The Life and Work of George Harvan
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