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Best Books - A Closer Look: Hillbilly Heroin, Honey

Hillbilly Heroin, Honey is a complicated book by Swedish photographer Hannah Modigh depicting the residents of St. Charles, VA, a small coal mining town with high poverty and unemployment. The book's exterior, black with gold lettering and a small debossed pattern around the edge, is not unlike photo albums from the late 70s. Inside, the black end papers lead into the lyrics of the song "Coal Tattoo" by Billy Edd Wheeler. Each line is presented in the center of a single thin white page, stretching from spine to edge. Taking up 8 pages, the lament of a coal miner's life becomes poetry and sets the tone, giving an indication of the hard life these people live.

From Hillbilly Heroin, Honey
From Hillbilly Heroin, Honey
Opening with a shot of a foggy river, Modigh walks us through a range of images from the small Virginia town. A mix of color and black & white, candid indoor and outdoor shots, portraits and landscapes, Modigh's photographs take us from front yards to bedrooms, show us coal miners, hunters and teenagers, kids in trucks and puppies sleeping in the warm sunlight -- and each depicted with an inherent beauty that may not have been immediately evident.

From Hillbilly Heroin, Honey
From Hillbilly Heroin, Honey
The book changes tone and format dramatically about halfway through when the white pages turn to black around an image of a white cat, dead in the middle of the road. On the following dozen or so black pages the images are presented in the style of a photo album, or perhaps a year book, clustered to fill the double page spreads. They do not appear to be arranged thematically and are of everything -- party pictures, tattoos, weathered faces, filthy rooms, family portraits, dead animals -- but somehow each carries a heavier negative weight than those presented on the clean white pages. In these black edged pages, relying more on black & white than color, in this mix of hasty snapshots and well conceived images, the book becomes overwhelming, almost frenetic. And then the white pages return, and we are brought back to a beautiful scene of trees and fog, leading into a second set of images in the same tone as the first.

From Hillbilly Heroin, Honey
This project is not without its flaws. Modigh has stated that this idea came from an interest in photographing poor white people, but in a press release Modigh (or her gallery) made the poor choice of referring to her subjects as "white trash." While this cannot fairly be construed as an insult, it does point to a misunderstanding of this American pejorative if not also her subjects place in American culture. The title Hillbilly Heroin, Honey, a reference to Oxycodone, is another peculiar aspect. Without an essay or other contextual material, the title carries heavier weight. Modigh does not show any of her subjects using the drug (though there are  likely shots of some high on it) presumably out of respect. Still, the title hangs oddly over these images, putting the body of work in the context of drug abuse and despite Modigh's choice not to address the issue head on. If nothing else, these are definitely images taken by an outsider, which may ultimately lend a layer of depth to this work. Many non-Americans have shown their perspective on more accessible facets of American culture, but few have chosen subjects like Modigh. The book remains an incredibly unique perspective on an already rarely seen segment of America. -- Sarah Bradley

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2010 by Morten Andersen.

Purchase a copy of this book here.

1 comment:

  1. The Appalachian experience has been documented many times with dignity in mind. I guess I don't quite see the tie to synthetic smack.

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