A Review of “Ogg Land: The Rediscovered Photographs of C.I. Ogg” by Kathryn Freeman
Review written by Eli Smith. This article will appear in print form in the forthcoming issue of “The Quiet American.”
C.I. “Pa” Ogg (1855-1950) was the main photographer in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he is only today starting to receive his due. “Ogg Land: The Rediscovered Photographs of C.I. Ogg,” lovingly compiled by his great granddaughter Kathryn Freeman, offers an amazing look into the old ways of the mountain frontier.
In her introduction, Kathryn Freeman writes, “In the summer of 1992 I made a promise to my mother that I would try to create a book of my great grandfather’s old photos, I set out to learn all that I could about the man that was our beloved “Pa Ogg.” After two decades of searching, my knowledge and archive have grown considerably… Pa Ogg’s work tells the story of Appalachia’s dramatic transformation from a farming economy to an industrial one. His photographs were widely published, from the late 19th century, right up to the present, but nearly always unattributed. He was an early photographer lost to history, a documentarian who made ‘art.’ The work is old, but it depicts a way of living that is far older than the photos themselves.”
As the fertile lands of Virginia and other states to the East became settled and accounted for, poor homesteaders, in search of their own stake, were forced to make the dangerous passage through the Cumberland Gap and other mountain passes to claim rugged land deep in the Appalachian interior. Many were soldiers in the revolutionary war that received homestead land grants in return for their service in Washington’s army. This book of photographs records the original mountaineer way of life in its final era.
This first volume of Pa Ogg’s work focuses on his beautiful documentation of the natural world and truly rural way of life in E. Kentucky from when he started making photographs around 1880 through the early 20th century. Ogg’s photographic record preserves the reality of subsistence farming and hunting that had existed for 100 or even 200 years in the mountains, but was soon to be obliterated as people were convinced or coerced into a turn towards a coal mining economy, which now forms the basis of the region’s identity.
C.I. Ogg was unable to read or write, and was known to be modest man who did not like to “sign” his work. For this reason, states Freeman in her text that accompanies the photographs, his prolific output remained nearly universally unattributed. Ogg’s work was widely published in books, newspapers and on postcards, but has never been brought together under his name until now. Despite limited formal education Pa Ogg mastered the technical process of photography, first using tin-type, and then sensitizing his own glass plate negatives, and as you will see in the photographs, he had a wonderful eye and sense for composition. He used a customized farm wagon of his own design as a portable dark room, with which he traversed the dry creek beds and rutted paths of his territory. Ogg was an insider, photographing people whom he had no cause, real or imagined, to objectify or distance himself from. His photographs are stunning and immediate, and do not seem as old as they are, perhaps because of his closeness to his subjects.
[C.I. “Pa” Ogg with pet gopher]
Later in her introduction Freeman says, “I hope that those who view this book may begin to see the mountain people of Kentucky in a new light, dignified and strong, in all their dirt-rich glory.” Marx’s “Labor Theory of Value” states that, “the value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of labor required to produce it.” When I look at these photos, that concept causes me to think on the one hand of the riches of home and handmade everything that these subsistence farmers enjoyed, living in a world defined solely by nature and the products of their own hard work. On the other hand these photos also reveal a hard life of stoic work and depravation, with sickness and death no doubt a daily burden.
In a recent email exchange, Kathryn Freeman wrote to me:
“There’s an awful good book called Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers, by Ronald D. Eller that was really helpful to me. You might want to read it down the road… it deals with the industrialization of the mountains (coal and lumber), and he does a nice job describing the changes that took place from 1880-1930. Pa Ogg’s work dovetails perfectly with that time period. Also, it was around 1880 when the dry plate became commonly used making photographs easier… you could make up the plates ahead of time and carry them with you. Also you could buy commercially made ones. I think Pa Ogg made his own, for the most part. He may have used some ready made ones later on. Anyway, for me Pa Ogg’s work is the visual counterpart to that book; his work as a whole. “Ogg Land” deals mainly with the agrarian side of his work. Later on, he captured early coal mining operations, railroad, lumber, and coal towns, right up into the mid to late 1930s. I’m still uncovering a lot of the later work, but I do have a few excellent examples from Harlan County.”
As a special bonus for this article, Freeman went on to write:
“He did a bunch of cool stuff for Berea College (in E. Kentucky), particularly before the Day law was passed (outlawing interracial education) in 1904. Berea appealed to the Supreme Court and lost, so even though they were founded as a school for interracial and coed education before the Civil War by abolitionists, they were not able to fulfill that part of their mission after 1904. So they focused on helping the mountain kids and funded a black college at another location to comply with the law. One of my favorite Pa Ogg portraits for Berea is the 1901 football team, just for your enjoyment. I love it…the picture of racial harmony and brotherly love. The weird contraptions hanging round their necks are nose guards to prevent head injury and broken noses.”
In future volumes of C.I. Ogg’s photography, Freeman is planning to showcase his studio portraiture (such as this portrait of the 1901 Berea football team), the transition of the region towards industry, and other aspects of his work. This volume serves as an amazing ode to American frontier life in the mountains before it was swept away by the railroad, the coalmines and Walmart, glory be its name.