John Ryan Brubaker: The States Project: West Virginia
John Ryan Brubaker resides in Thomas, West Virginia, in a reclaimed building that is an art gallery, studio, and apartment. Brubaker grew up in Michigan with a darkroom in his house (his father is a photographer, as well as his grandfather). He roamed the world for many years, back and forth between Belgium, California, Portland, Asia, and eventually landed in Thomas, West Virginia in 2011. “I had friends in Thomas, and shows in Thomas… West Virginia got in me, the landscape, the people… This is the place I want to set up my studio, it’s where I want to go home to.”
John Ryan started finding ancestral connections to West Virginia – his mother’s family, it turns out, is of Melungeon descent, and were tobacco share-croppers from the Kentucky/West Virginia border. Melungeon people are from multiracial ancestry, likely between African and Native American descent, who escaped persecution in rural parts of Appalachia. His father’s family is descendent from the Pennsylvania Mennonites. Brubaker says of living in Thomas, “Somehow, I managed to plant myself right between them.”
On Confluence is a series of Van Dyke prints, a historic photographic printing process which renders the print as a deep brown, the same color as the Blackwater River, which runs through Thomas. The optimal developing agent for Van Dyke is acidic water, preferably pH 2-4, which the river is, due to acid mine drainage from a history of coal mining. Brubaker walked the river for days, waist high in water. He walked slowly, purposefully, methodically, “you can’t really see the bottom, you have to step carefully.” On Confluence is an environmental statement of the place Brubaker calls home – the Blackwater River, a pathway through that place.
John Ryan Brubaker is a photographer and visual artist based in West Virginia. He produces work in project format, as collections of images for exhibition, and as series of printed publications. He is interested in the peripheries of the photographic process, experimenting with everything from presentation and distribution models to the chemical make-up of photographic paper. He has exhibited across the US and Europe and has been published by the likes of The Virginia Quarterly Review, Ampersand Editions and The Fotomuseum of Antwerp. Since 2011, he splits his time between Thomas, WV and Brussels, Belgium where he is a studio resident at Greylight Projects.
On Confluence is a personal engagement with the North Fork Blackwater River in Tucker County, West Virginia. Due to a history of coal extraction and environmental neglect, the river water is often highly acidic and contains concentrations of heavy metals that render it generally unfit for life, recreation, or consumption.
The images in this project were made during a series of walks through the North Fork river and watershed. Some were created using a camera, others are the result of direct interventions between light-sensitive paper and the immediate landscape. They were all exposed on the shore of the river using sunlight, and processed directly in the river water. Using acid mine drainage as their developing agent, these photographs contain traces of the same heavy metals and mine runoff as the watershed itself.
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