A weighty tome of black-and-white images and the oral histories of those who fill the pages of this impressive collection, On Earth's Furrowed Brow represents Southern Appalachia with a vast array of images set in this stark and remotely beautiful terrain. Here are the faces, old and young, but mostly weathered by time and experience, of those who live on this unforgiving land, harvesting their crops, hand-sewing quilts pieced together from the remnants of older garments, the stories of generations found in the calico and gingham of forebears.
It is impossible to place the photographs in a context of time. They are as ageless as the inhabitants of the farms, members of the white-steepled churches, old men sitting outside a country store with pipes in hand, women in doorways of their homes, their flowered cotton aprons fresh and clean at the beginning of another day’s labors, the barely-visible figure on a tractor plowing over the fields.
A paean to the haunting beauty of nature, the realities of farm life, the importance of religion and family, the intimacy of life and death and its connection with the earth, Barnwell’s photographs are celebratory: the weathered faces toiling the fields, clapboard buildings, tin-roofed shacks filled with broken porch steps, country stores with wooden benches for customers to rest and gossip, rusted cars abandoned in a shallow valley, a one-pump gas station, elderly couples holding hands, posing for the camera.
Nature is the true star of the collection, the one constant in a changing landscape of faces, both beautiful and exacting of those who seek shelter and bounty. This is a place where music beats to the rhythms of labor, where fiddles shriek their joy and guitars strum, voices raised in celebration or in the honor of God, people stamping their feet in time to traditional songs reverberating with history.
The pages of this remarkable book facilitate a journey into a world far removed from raucous cities, the clamor of traffic and the incessant ringing of cell phones, bespeaking a quieter, more relevant time that is purely American, a treasure of memory and history. Such history is not purely visual; these people have stories to tell, lives of moment, excerpts of which are found in the “Oral Histories” at the back of the book.
Toney Worley bemoans the influx of “foreigners” all the way from Florida, who offer five thousand dollars for an old home place: “You gotta do it at the prices they’re payin’.” Money was worthless after the Civil War, says Analo Phillips: “People would just make their land transactions by trade - two cows and a mule, or a hog rifle, somethin’ of value.”
On Earth's Furrowed Brow documents the history of this country’s proudest citizens, stark and visceral images of a region caught in time, a beautiful and haunting portrait of Appalachia.