The Historical Essay - Part 2

Thomas Dublin and Melissa Doak

Selection of Harvan photographs laid out horizontally.

Historical Essay Introduction | Historical Essay 1 | Historical Essay 2

Beyond the Valley

Many of the qualities evident in Harvan's mining photos are also apparent in the photos he took outside the anthracite region. Two interrelated projects—exploring the Pennsylvania Amish and documenting country auctions—occupied Harvan for much of the 1960s, and reveal a basic continuity across the range of his documentary photographs.

A shot of an open buggy with an Amish couple and a young child reflects Harvan's approach to his work. First, there is the image's meticulous composition, something he rarely talks about, but which is evident in his photographs. The horse, buggy, and family dominate in the foreground of the picture, but they fit seamlessly into the larger countryside with its checkerboard fields in the background. The wheels and spokes add other elements to the photograph's geometry. Still, what stands out is the quiet strength on the faces of Harvan's subjects. In the end the Amish family provides the focus of the picture. Using a telephoto lens permitted Harvan to capture the scene without any self-consciousness on the part of his subjects. Harvan's portrait of Brad Smoker, an Amish actor, reveals similar qualities. Harvan captured the intensity and otherworldliness of this "man of the book." Smoker was no doubt aware of being photographed, yet one senses that there was a relationship here as subject and photographer went about their work; the resulting photograph in no way seems posed.

Harvan seemed to enter the world of his varied subjects almost effortlessly. He did not disturb them, nor call attention to himself as photographer. Several other Amish photographs express these qualities. Consider Harvan's treatment of an Amish woman enjoying ice cream on a day when she had come into town for shopping—or his view of an Amish girl in a closed buggy, probably also on a market day. In both photos the subjects appear engrossed in their own worlds, oblivious of others, including the photographer. This was not accidental, but something that Harvan very consciously strove to achieve. In discussing these photographs, he commented:

I always photographed the Amish with respect. I never shoved my camera in their faces. They don't particularly like people photographing them. So I either did it with a long lens, which is kind of sneaky in a way, or a hidden camera. . . . I didn't want to invade anyone's privacy just to make a photograph. But you get the feeling that everything about them is unique and the people in their way dignified. . . . When you get into photography seriously, you sometimes feel you should pursue certain subjects. But you've got to do it with a certain amount of respect for the people you decide to photograph.[17]

These words, of course, apply equally well to Harvan's photographs of Japanese on the streets of Tokyo in 1946, of miners in the Panther Valley in the 1950s, and of the Amish of Lancaster County in the 1960s.

Harvan brought this same sense of respect for his subjects to the photographs he took at country auctions in the late 1950s and 1960s. His signature image from this series is "Farewell, Dear Relics," the auction picture which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1959. The photo engages the viewer, offering at once a wide view of the auction and a strikingly intimate glimpse of the auctioneer and the audience. All eyes in the scene are turned toward the auctioneer and the captain's chair he holds. Harvan captured the diversity of faces and dress as urban, suburban, and rural met at this country event. The photo reminds one of a Norman Rockwell painting. It was particularly appropriate in a magazine series entitled "The Face of America," offering a slice of America in the late Eisenhower years.[18]

Harvan's auction photos captured the relationship between audience and auctioneer, both focused on the objects for sale. He emphasized this dynamic by the crowding apparent in many of the shots—particularly evident in "Farewell, Dear Relics," and in an auction at the Harry Packer mansion in Jim Thorpe. Other images accented this relationship in more subtle ways. In one photograph we see the auctioneer standing at a plow, pointing at and addressing an off-camera bidder. Even audience members who aren't bidding gaze intently at the action. Thus three seated women in one shot and three boys up in a hayloft in another do not miss a beat of what is going on. As he records the rapt attention of the audience, Harvan shows the auction as engrossing entertainment.

This emphasis is striking, given the title of the signature image, "Farewell, Dear Relics," and the accompanying commentary that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post:
Miss Della Keiser has sold out—lock, stock and barrel—at the rundown family farm near Normal Square, Pennsylvania. Now in her seventies and living in a home for the aged, she's the last survivor of an old and respected clan. So auctioneer Curtis Houser knocked down the time-worn possessions and, so doing, tolled the death of a household and the end of a family.[19]
Even in the "death of a household and the end of a family" there are the living. These "time-worn possessions" take on new life as people bid on them and brought them into their own households.

Equally instructive are the individual portraits Harvan took at these auctions. Harvan captured idiosyncratic personalities, even though he photographed people he did not know. Consider the contrast between two auction attenders: the first a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer, chomping on a cigar and a second farmer, in straw hat and overalls. Like the portraits Harvan took of Lanscoal miners, the personalities of the subjects come through.

Harvan eventually began to express his vision as an artist more explicitly through his photographs, later shifting away from a purely documentary approach to his subjects. In a series of photographs he shot in New York City in the 1960s, Harvan sometimes consciously chose a slow shutter speed, or even rotated his camera, to impart the sense of motion that seemed to him characteristic of urban street life. Contrast an early picture of a woman leaning against a shoestore display window with a later whirling shot of a very similar scene. The first image has the fine focus and clarity common in Harvan's mining photographs; the second is deliberately blurred. Harvan moved from accurately depicting people on New York City streets to trying to capture something of the essence of the scenes he witnessed. He was no longer so focused on telling his subjects' stories—as in the mining photos—as in constructing his own.

This same development is evident in Harvan's photographs of the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. Compare Harvan's photograph of a southern general striding firmly into battle with his treatment of a cannon fairly bursting out of another picture. He made no effort in this sequence of photos to tell the story of the famous battle; rather, he photographed the monuments in a way which imparted motion and drama. In a metaphorical sense he brought the battle to life for his audience. As in his earlier documentary work, he sought not just the surface reality, but a deeper truth about people and events. The goals of the New York and Gettysburg series were consistent with that of his mine photographs, but the techniques Harvan used to achieve those ends were very different from the methods he employed earlier in his career.

This evolution is particularly striking in one set of photographs that stands apart from the main thrust of Harvan's photography—his mannequin series. As Harvan commented several times in interviews, he never posed a miner or directed his subjects how or where to stand.[20] In that way, Harvan emphasized the central reality of the scenes he photographed and underscored that he was telling others' stories. The mannequin series provided an interesting departure from his earlier form of expression.

In his oral history, Harvan described how he came upon a mannequin in an abandoned car in a dilapidated shed: "It kind of startled me. The way the light fell on the mannequin, it almost looked like a real person sitting there behind the wheel of this battered car." Harvan kept coming back to the mannequin in succeeding weeks. As he recalled, "I'd go back, it would either be changed, or it was the same place, or I would move it. It all depended on the lighting and the conditions." Harvan shot hundreds of photographs over the course of about a year, tracking the seasons and following what happened to the mannequin. Two images capture particularly well the deterioration of the mannequin over time. He wasn't so interested in recording the mannequin for posterity as in telling a larger story through his images:
The deterioration of the mannequin was almost like the deterioration of a human being. We go through various stages of our life. We're born, we live, we're young and healthy, we're strong and look good in the spring of our lives. Then we go into the summer of our life, the middle. At a certain point, we start to head downhill, to the fall and the winter of our lives. It reminded me—the deterioration of this mannequin—of our life as we live it. While the deterioration of the mannequin happened in one season, it takes us years.[21]

Like a novelist or playwright, George Harvan consciously crafted a story to speak to the broader human condition. Although he certainly did that in all his work, the nature of his own interventions into the realities of the miners and the mannequin were quite distinct. As a mature photographer in the mid-1980s, approaching the end of his career, he was much more self-consciously the artist crafting his message and less a person recording his own experiences for posterity. He took a more active role in shaping his message than was apparent in his earlier photographic work.

Among His Peers

One quality strikingly distinguished Harvan from the mainstream of twentieth-century documentary photography. Riis, Hine, Lange, Evans, Rothstein, and others were invariably outsiders in relation to their subjects. They came to their material with specific interests and intentions that became apparent as one analyzes their photographs. In his documentation of the decline of anthracite deep mining in northeastern Pennsylvania, Harvan was quintessentially the insider. There was no self-consciousness as he donned overalls, denim jacket, hardhat, and lamp and hiked a mile into the No. 9 mine to photograph the last days of the Lanscoal miners. He had known those miners and their brothers and sisters since childhood. He came from a local mining family and resided in Lansford all his life, except for a brief period around World War II. His professional work involved photographing miners and members of their families. Thus Harvan stood out in the way he brought an insider's perspective to the documentary tradition.

Several accounts of Depression-era documentary photographers of the Farm Security Administration show this contrast very clearly. Lawrence W. Levine wrote about a famous 1936 photograph Walker Evans took of an Alabama tenant farmer, Floyd Burroughs, published in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photo shows Burroughs sitting in the doorway of his unpainted cabin, wearing a ripped work shirt with a couple of days of stubble on his cheeks. Evans took other photographs of Burroughs and his family, including a brighter, more optimistic image of Burroughs in his Sunday best surrounded by his wife, sister-in-law, and four clean, nicely dressed children. The published portrait emphasizes the toll the Depression had taken on an Alabama tenant farmer; the unpublished one the pride and dignity of a family facing hardships. Both photographs convey truths about Floyd Burroughs, but it is clear that Walker Evans chose the first one to make a point.[22] So, too, did George Harvan. In selecting photographs for exhibits, Harvan chose images that spoke to the dignity, the strong work ethic, and sense of self-respect he found among his mining neighbors. Though their lives were ones of constant struggle, in Harvan's work, they were not objects of pity.

The difference between Harvan's approach and that of Dorothea Lange is also instructive. Lange's well-known 1936 photograph, "Migrant Mother," captured 32-year-old Florence Thompson sitting under the shelter of a makeshift tent in a migrant labor camp in California. She has a baby in her lap and two older children leaning on her shoulder, but is facing away from the camera. The caption turns Florence Thompson into something of an ideal type. Levine noted, "Dorothea Lange never inquired after the name of the woman whose image she made immortal . . . never noted the names of the four daughters pictured in the series; never sought to learn the whereabouts of Thompson's other three children or her husband; and, so far as we can tell, never wondered where Florence Thompson had been or where she hoped to go. 'I did not ask her name or history,' Lange noted simply, as if this was the most reasonable possible action."[23] This was not Harvan's style. Unlike Lange, the resident photographer of the Panther Valley had an intimate knowledge of the life histories of the Lanscoal miners he photographed; he knew their hopes, their expectations, and the reasons they remained in a dying community rather than strike out for brighter economic prospects elsewhere. He understood these men not as sociological types but as individuals. His named portraits of the Lanscoal miners and the detailed captions of his photographs reflect that understanding.

The outsider/insider distinction is one distinction between Harvan and the FSA photographers of the Depression decade, but there is another difference that places Harvan within a broader context. Operating on a national, even an international stage, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans brought a cosmopolitan perspective to their work. At several junctures in his life—when offered jobs with the Associated Press in Tokyo and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—George Harvan could have joined that cosmopolitan world. Rather, he returned to the Panther Valley and the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania, and chose a self-conscious provincialism.[24] We say "self-conscious" because he clearly made choices in his life. Moreover, he was not isolated and cut off from larger currents by the choices he made. He published his photographs in respected, national publications; he attended photographic exhibitions in New York City and became increasingly familiar with the best photographic work in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. But he came home to the anthracite region and fulfilled his compelling need to document miners and the last days of anthracite coal mining.

In photographing his miner neighbors, George Harvan brought an insider's view of industrial decline in the region; but when he shot photographs among the Pennsylvania Dutch, or in New York City or Gettysburg, he no longer had this same perspective. Still, he brought attitudes and sensibilites shaped by his formative years as a photographer inside the anthracite mines to these other projects. He sought to minimize his intrusiveness on the subjects of his photos and to treat them with respect, capturing what he viewed as their essential dignity. As noted earlier, he did, over time, experiment in his work, moving away from the total reliance on clarity and sharp focus that characterized his mining photographs. In his Gettysburg and New York City photographs, as well as in the mannequin series, Harvan took liberties that permitted him to craft his own interpretation. In so doing, he drew on expressionistic techniques that were transforming the photographic world. Significantly, Harvan was most willing to experiment when photographing subjects with whom he did not have close personal connections. When he photographed miners, he tried to tell their story; in New York City, photographing anonymous figures on the street, or at Gettysburg, photographing bronze statues of distant war heroes, he took more liberties in telling his story.

George Harvan's self-conscious provincialism distinguishes him from the FSA photographers and other nationally prominent documentary photographers, but his local, working-class focus has much in common with other photographers in the years since World War II. The works of three photographers offer quite different perspectives from which to consider Harvan's place within contemporary documentary photography: the Cape Breton mining photographs of Leslie Shedden; the Appalachian mining photos of Earl Dotter, and the photos taken by Bill Bamberger during the closing of White's Furniture Company in Mebane, North Carolina.

Leslie Shedden was a commercial photographer located in Glace Bay, Cape Breton. He was employed by the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (Dosco) to take publicity photographs of their mining operations. A rich collection of images from the Shedden Studio archives appeared in 1983, accompanied by critical and historical essays exploring Shedden's industrial and commercial photographs taken between 1948 and 1968.[25] Given Harvan's photographic work in the mines of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (1949-1954) and the Lanscoal Company (1960-1972), these two bodies of work offer striking opportunities for comparison.

Machinery dominated Leslie Shedden's photographs of Dosco's underground mining operations in Cape Breton. As Shedden himself explained, "We didn't go down in the mines to take pictures of workmen, we went down to take pictures of machinery, of equipment."[26] Operations at Dosco differed from those at LC&N because the veins of bituminous coal ran horizontally in Cape Breton and were susceptible to mechanization, while hand operations continued to predominate in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Continuous mining machines and automatic conveyor belts played major roles in bituminous operations, but were conspicuously absent in anthracite mining. Equally important, Dosco manufactured and sold mining machinery and many of Shedden's pictures were used in company advertising.

Even with these differences in the work processes that characterized the two mining operations, similarities linked Harvan's early photographs to those of Shedden. Allan Sekula's description of Shedden's photographs can be applied with little revision to Harvan's commissioned work for LC&N: "Here are clean, well-lit tableaux. There are two kinds of stasis. . . . First, there is the overt stasis of the 'pose,' of a group of managers or miners standing self-consciously in front of the camera. . . . Second, there is a duplicitous sort of stasis, a stasis which poses as movement. A machine is shown 'in action ', cutting into the coal face. But if this were true the camera would have registered a black fog of coal dust." [27] These lines bring to mind Harvan's image of well-scrubbed coal salesmen, grouped in front of the No. 8 mine in Coaldale.

How different are Harvan's images of miners at work at LC&N and at the Lanscoal Company! Particularly in the latter operation, he documented underground miners for posterity, not for a company's advertising or public relations needs. At Lanscoal, Harvan focused on the camaraderie among the miners—drinking beer and singing at the end of the week's work—not something that either Dosco or LC&N was likely to permit on company property. What we see in Shedden's work is what Harvan's work might have looked like had LC&N continued in operation throughout his career as a photographer. The company's closing freed Harvan to approach his subjects in new ways and to develop new relationships with them. LC&N paid Harvan well, but his photos had to meet corporate needs. His interview comments reveal that he always took more photos than were called for on a given job and no doubt he often framed shots with his own needs in mind. Still, as a free-lance photographer in the employ of the Panther Valley's sole anthracite firm, he necessarily operated under constraints. These considerations changed dramatically when the company closed its mining operations in 1954. The ultimate result was a body of photographic work very distinct from that produced by Leslie Shedden in Cape Breton.

Comparing the photographs of Shedden and Harvan emphasizes the significant differences in the stories they constructed. Another photographer of miners, Earl Dotter, comes to mind as a contemporary who shared Harvan's perspectives and impulses. Dotter had more formal training and traveled more widely, but in the 1970s he focused his photographic work on coal miners in Appalachia. (For more on Dotter's biography and his photographic projects, go to his World Wide Web site: Like Harvan, Dotter was drawn to the hard, dangerous work underground, and to the strength and courage of miners and their families in the face of hard work and adversity. Two images stand out when comparing the similar approaches of these two documentary photographers. Examine for a moment Dotter's portrait of a bituminous miner from Logan, West Virginia with one of Harvan's portraits of one of the Lanscoal miners. Their respective treatment of family members of miners following industrial accidents have much in common. We see in these images enormous respect for people facing tragic losses.

Dotter's work has been well described by Walter Rosenblum, in an introduction to the portfolio In Mine and Mill. Rosenblum wrote, "his images contrast the danger and discomfort of mining with the dignity and heroism of the miners themselves." His description of Dotter at the funeral of one of the victims of the Scotia Mine disaster in 1976 could have applied to Harvan during the tense vigils after the disasters at Port Griffith and Sheppton some years earlier: "[His] presence at the moment of tragedy is remarkably unobtrusive, as though he wears a cloak of invisibility. But this is not accidental. He has paid his dues in the five years of working and living with miners who regarded him as a member of their families."[28] Dotter and Harvan came to their photography from different backgrounds, but they were cut from the same cloth in the way they operated, and in the way they related to miners. Both show us, in Rosenblum's words, the "heroism and simple dignity" of men and women who led hard lives in mining communities.

This perspective is shared by Bill Bamberger, whose photographs in Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory portray furniture workers caught in the throes of deindustrialization as the North Carolina factory where they had worked for ten or twenty years closed down. Bamberger had to win the workers' trust, but over a five-month period the firm's employees accepted the photographer and opened up to him. Bamberger caught his subjects at work, relaxing during breaks, learning of the plant closing, and reading or signing their pension forms. As in George Harvan's photographs, Bamberger offers many engaging views of the work process, but his focus is on the workers, rather than on the machinery or the final products. He too is drawn to portraits that express the dignity and self-respect of men and women caught in circumstances over which they exercise no control. As in Harvan's work, broad economic and social changes take on a human face in Bamberger's photographs.

Dotter, Bamberger, and Harvan all build on traditions of realistic portraiture developed by the FSA photographers, but they empathize and identify with their subjects rather than sympathize for them. Their work communicates respect rather than pity.


In the end, George Harvan is significant because he crafted an enduring photographic record of the last years of underground anthracite mining in northeastern Pennsylvania—and of the region's mining families as they experienced that decline. He knew the region and its people intimately for eighty years. He came of age in Lansford during the Depression, joined his classmates in the work camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and with them found his way into military service during World War II. Unlike his neighbors, though, he returned home after the war with a camera in hand, a keen visual eye, and a determination to record life around him as he found it. For half a century he has been in a unique position to record life in this corner of Pennsylvania and to graphically preserve for posterity the industrial decline of the Panther Valley: the anxiety and heartaches of mine disasters, the abandoned and decaying coal breakers, but also the great love of life, pride, and self-respect of hardworking men and women who chose to stay on and make their way in the face of traumatic economic decline. In bringing these people and their lives out of the shadows, George Harvan has done a great service. Their story is his story and we are all the richer for his having shared it with us.

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