A photographic project titled “America’s Coal Miners” was recently donated to the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. The project includes life-size images of West Virginia coal miners in high-quality photographs.
Photographer Thorney Lieberman has kept some of the images of coal miners in his own home in Charleston since 2007. Some hang on Lieberman’s walls and others even on the ceiling and among his coat rack.
In 2007, two photographs won awards from the West Virginia Division of Arts, Culture and History. The only image of a coal miner woman in the project won a merit award. The subject of this image was Anita Cecil-McBride.
Lieberman says he will never forget the first time he met Cecil-McBride at a Boone County church.
“She jumped out of her car and she was driving like a tiny little Geo Metro,” Thorney said, “and through the windshield in huge letters he said“ COAL DIGGER. ”She jumped into her miner’s clothes , filthy. And I was so stunned. I didn’t take a picture, but it’s etched in my memory that she jumped out of that coal digger car, and “here I am!”
Lieberman photographed Anita in these mine clothes for a black and white photo, stitched together with mosaic images.
Six pieces from the Lieberman Coal Miners series are already on display to the public in Moundsville at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.
Although he cannot know how each person reacted to the images, he is aware of a certain group.
“Mostly West Virginia,” he said. “Very proud to have seen them. It makes them proud to be West Virginia. It makes them proud of their culture.
The photographs are life-size portraits from the top of the miners’ helmets to the tips of their boots. Most of the portraits are done in black and white and mounted on steel sheets. The final pieces are almost 7 feet tall.
The project aimed to “give a human face to energy”.
The exhibit was originally sponsored by some pro-industry groups such as the coal companies and Appalachian Power as well as the United Mine Workers of America, and private donors such as the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.
Lieberman is not from “coal country”. Even when he moved to Charleston, he didn’t have much connection to the state’s coal deposits. But he is used to being a stranger to the subjects of his portraits. He photographed the Native Americans of Colorado for 15 years.
“I am very proud,” he said. “That kind of New Yorker, you know, came to West Virginia and was able to contribute.”
He was initially inspired to take the photos after watching the terror of the Sago mine disaster unfold in 2006, shortly after moving to West Virginia. Thirteen miners were trapped for two days underground in the Sago mine disaster. All but one ultimately died.
“The explosion at the Sago mine happened and it made the news,” he said. “And it shocked me to realize that I lived in the middle of, even though I live in the city and there isn’t much evidence, but I live in the middle of coal country. And so I looked for subjects to photograph.
Working on the project since 2006, Lieberman has learned more about the values and self-esteem of coal miners.
“They all wanted to be photographed with their children, which is telling. These coal miners are very family oriented, ”Lieberman said with a chuckle.
Lieberman said the family pride was evident not only in the photos, but also in the reactions to his on display.
“The children of these minors are absolutely delighted to see their fathers immortalized like this,” he said. “I mean, they come to the shows and they stand in front of them and they beam from ear to ear and they’re so proud. And and women and children really are. And the miners themselves are extremely happy that these things are being shown. “
Lieberman says 16 rooms, including most of those in his home, will find permanent homes at Chief Logan State Park. The exhibit will become a permanent part of the West Virginia State Museum’s collection.
The exhibit is scheduled to be picked up from Lieberman in Charleston on August 23. He’s thrilled to know that more people will see her – and understand a little better about those who do this often dangerous but important job.
“My work in these portraits was really kind of a celebration,” he said. They were heroic figures in a way. I mean, they, you know, they work really hard under terrible conditions, but they fueled America. “