The University of Kentucky Press has recently published a new book of James Archambeault’s photographs, Historic Kentucky, the fifth in his catalog of Kentucky photo volumes. The images therein are among Archambeault’s most evocative and moving, and are, to the credit of all, accompanied by a Wendell Berry forward and an introduction by the artist, both of which place the images in their contemporary context. Namely (and crudely): the places seen in this book are history, in the vernacular sense of the phrase, or are rapidly becoming it.
In his preface, Berry (the greatest living Kentuckian thinker and writer) quotes the late Guy Davenport (one of the greatest, living or dead, Kentuckian thinkers and writers): “every building in the United States is an offense to invested capital. It occupies space which, as greed acknowledges no limits, can be better utilized.” And: “Money has no ears, no eyes, no respect; it’s all gut, mouth, and ass.” Every other page reveals a homestead, a general store, a meeting house that, as the photographer wryly notes in caption after caption, is no more, having either been left to rot into neglected ground or torn down to make way for some whim of invested capital, be it one of agribusiness, energy concern, or pork-barrel politic. A gorgeous view of the Wildnerness Road that brought pioneer families across the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky is included here – hike that trail now and where once our frontiering ancestors saw the ridges, hollers, and creeks of the Kentucke promised land you’ll find mountaintops ripped off for the coal underneath.
Most Kentuckians have a weakness for waxing rhapsodic about the natural riches of our state and the romantic lives we have lived in, on, and among them – horse farms in the Bluegrass; steamboats down the Ohio into the Mississippi; covered bridges over the countless creeks, streams, and branches; Daniel Boone trekking through the Red River Gorge – but I wonder how many of those with the privilege to wile away their hours in flights of pastoral fancy consider the havoc the market is wreaking on their natural and historical idylls. Kentucky romanticism is a big business; coffee table books, calendars, greeting cards, encyclopedias honoring some stripe of the state’s character or other are legion. Archambeault’s previous books are among the most visible (and beautiful) manifestations of this self-regard, and it’s a vindicating thing that Historic Kentucky has come out, just in time for Christmas, to remind his fellows of the rapacity of gut, mouth, and ass threatening the magnificent sites and sights of the Commonwealth.