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For more than fifty years mountain-born Earl Palmer traveled the Southern Appalachians with his camera, recording his personal vision of the mountain people and their heritage. Over these years he created, in several thousand photographs, a distinctive body of work that affirms a traditional image of Appalachia—a region of great natural beauty inhabited by a self-sufficient people whose lives are notable for simplicity and harmony.

For this book, Jean Haskell Speer has selected more than 120 representative photographs from Palmer’s collection and has written a biographical and critical commentary based on extensive interviews with the photographer. The photographs portray the Appalachian landscape and the rich variety of traditional mountain culture. They convey a sense not just of historic moment but of mythic quality.

In the introduction, Speer weaves together Palmer's upbringing and education, his moral and aesthetic training, his photographic mentors, and cultural influences on his work. She relates his work to accepted definitions of documentary photography and to issues of truth and objectivity in photography. Palmer’s photographs, Speer argues, are not documentary in the ordinary sense, but are nonetheless significant cultural statements. They depict not so much a geographical region as a particular idea of Appalachia.

Earl Palmer's photographs possess their own power and visual appeal and may be enjoyed for that reason alone. But combined in this book with a critical analysis and context, they become a valuable cultural commentary on the Appalachian region—a unique resource for students and scholars.

Jean Haskell Speer is emerita director of the Appalachian Studies Program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

"Palmer has given us the best view we will ever have of life and work in the Southern Appalachians. . . . His magnificent collection of photographs preserves the old way of life for us to study and ponder."—Harry Caudill

"An idyllic world of beauty, simplicity, and self-sufficiency is recorded in Palmer's work. . . . Jean Speer's interpretation puts his pictures in context and enhances their already substantial value as artifacts from a disappearing age."—John Egerton

"Palmer carries pictures of Appalachia in his head, and he has scoured the mountains for people and scenes to fill his vision. In her excellent introductory essay, Jean Speer reveals her close knowledge of Palmer and of photography."—Loyal Jones

"As skillfully woven as the intertwined branches of the wild plum thicket is this tenderly told and expertly contrived remembrance of a child’s idyllic summer, which ended in the shadow of an old, old guilt, borne too long and too quietly to sustain."—New York Times

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Earl Palmer, Appalachia, Photography


Appalachian Studies

The Appalachian Photographs of Earl Palmer
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