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Jack Corn, DOCUMERICA Photographer

Jack Corn, a retired photojournalist and professor, came to visit the “Searching for the Seventies” exhibit here at the National Archives, bringing along his family and one of his former students. Why? He was one of the 70 photographers commissioned by the EPA to take photos for the DOCUMERICA project. (His photos from the assignment are available on our Online Public Access research site, as well as in this Flickr set.) I was lucky enough to interview him and his student, D.C. photojournalist Scott Robinson, over the phone.

"Homes of coal miners who live in Tazewell County, Virginia near Richlands, in the southwestern tip of the state." (ARC 556341)

Starting in 1961, Jack made a point of visiting the Appalachian Mountains to take photographs. He went at least once a year, focusing specifically on one town. As such, he was perfectly prepared to photograph the area for DOCUMERICA.

At the time he went on assignment for the EPA, Jack was working at The Tennessean, based in Nashville. He was on an extended break so that he could focus on photography outside the confines of the newspaper office. “I think I even took a week of vacation time,” he added.

The DOCUMERICA assignment was different from others because he didn’t have a reporter with him. “It made it harder, because reporters take notes and ask questions for you.” Further, his subjects were sometimes “suspicious” of the work he was doing. “They understand when you say you’re from a newspaper, but they don’t understand [a photographer] working for the government.”

Although Jack was nervous that his subjects might be upset by the hardship highlighted in his images, he recently donated 30 of his photographs to the Appalachian town where he focused his work. The community “loved [the photos]. . . . They were pretty bad off when I took the photos. . . . But this is how it was.”

When Scott spoke about his experiences with Jack, it was evident that Jack made a lasting impression not only on his subjects, but also on his students. “Jack brought a lot of enthusiasm to his work and teaching. It was hard not to get caught up in that enthusiastic energy.” As a photojournalism professor at Western Kentucky University, Jack taught Scott “how to deal with people on assignment. To be a documentary photographer, you have to understand that people are the same wherever they are.”

"Group of miners waiting to go to work on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #4 near Richlands, Virginia 04/1974" (ARC 556347)

Jack eloquently reiterated this point, saying “You have to treat everybody with great respect, treat everybody the same. Sometimes people who are college-educated, the things they say are less profound than what people in the mountains say. . . . People, if you take time and talk to them, there’s a lot more depth to them than people think.”

At the end of his interview, Scott talked about one of Jack’s most famous quips: “ ‘You can fish or cut bait.’ . . . Basically what he was saying was that at a certain point, you have to go out and take the photo. Photography is immediate; when you don’t get it the first time, you probably don’t have another chance.”

However, “some work needs to stand the test of time,” as Jack explained. Before he hung up, he gave me an excellent tip on how to judge the quality of a photograph: See whether you get sick of it. “Put it on your kitchen table. If it’s still there at the end of the week, you know it’s a good one.”

In fact, Jack made personal duplicates of only three photos—his favorites—from the DOCUMERICA assignment. You can see them below.

Among other things, Jack said he “was very impressed by the exhibit, and impressed by the variety [of subjects].” He also said, “It was exciting to see all the names” of his fellow photojournalists, many of whom he has worked with and admired.

The exhibit runs through September 8, 2013. Don’t miss it!

"Early morning light enriches a bucolic scene at Claypool Hill, near Richlands, Virginia, about a dozen miles from the coal mines, 10/1974" (ARC 556586)

 

"Jack and Della Mae Smith in front of the beer joint he operates in Rhodell, West Virginia, near Beckley, 06/1974" (ARC 556581)

"Veteran miner Harold Stanley, right, talks to a young miner who has come into the mine for the first time after 40 hours of classroom training. Stanley placed his hand on the new man, shined his lamp in the miner's face and said 'Be alert, be safe, and uns (you) will be a good miner and get along just fine.' this is Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #3 near Richlands, Virginia, 04/1974" (ARC 556362)

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