In a shack near Neon, Ky., Mrs. Delphi Mobley comforts daughter Riva, ill with measles. Proper medical care is beyond her $125 monthly welfare pay.
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Caption from LIFE. "In a shack near Neon, Ky., Mrs. Delphi Mobley comforts daughter Riva, ill with measles. Proper medical care is beyond her $125 monthly welfare pay."John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In a shack near Neon, Ky., Mrs. Delphi Mobley comforts daughter Riva, ill with measles. Proper medical care is beyond her $125 monthly welfare pay.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Nadine McFall, 1, happily reaches over to pat the stomach of a huge doll -- its wardrobe long since lost and never replaced -- as she squats on a crowded couch in her great grandmother's shack near Neon.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
On a wintry afternoon in Line Fork Creek a family trudges across a rickety suspension bridge over a sewage-polluted stream to its two-room shack.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Youngsters lap up a surplus-commodity supper of pan-fried biscuits, gravy and potatoes at the Odell Smiths of Friday Branch Creek. The newspapers were pasted by Mrs. Smith in an effort to keep the place neat.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
All over Appalachia the ruins of trestles jut from deserted hillside coal mines. This mine, once owned by Thornton Mining Co., was making big money 20 years ago. It paid miners $8.50 a day -- good pay in those days -- and wealth flowed through the valley. The mine closed in 1945.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Tearing with bare hands at frozen lumps of coal, Willard Bryant and his son Billy crouch between railroad tracks, scavenging fuel to heat their home. When the tub is full, they will drag it to the hill where they live, reload the coal into bags and carry it on their backs to the house.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
In a one-room school at Thornton Gap, Loretta Adams dispenses what Appalachia needs most -- learning. In winter pupils are constantly out sick.
Appalachia's young people, like Roberta Oliver, 14, from Rock House Creek, Ky., are often sad-faced and prematurely aged. Most suffer fatigue because of a diet of surplus food, heavy in starches like flour and rice and inadequately augmented by lard and cheese, butter and ground pork.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Old-time religion offers consolation. In the Thorton Gap Regular Baptist Church, a tar-paper-covered shed heated to stifling by a big stove, preacher Elzie Kiser, 62, calls on his small flock to 'get with God.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Eighteen-year-old Ray Martin is a lucky man by local standards. He has a job in a mine near Isom, one of the shoestring 'dog holes' kept going through low wages, back-breaking labor, overused equipment and minimal safety measures. Ray earns $10 a day and the work is fairly steady.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, 1964.
A cow is a rare sight in Appalachia. The people are not country folk but an industrial population who happen to live in the country and have little feeling for the soil. Many keep chickens, but farming is seldom practiced."
The commonest sights around Appalachia are aging men and ragged urchins. . . .
Caption from LIFE. "In a shack near Neon, Ky., Mrs. Delphi Mobley comforts daughter Riva, ill with measles. Proper medical care is beyond her $125 monthly welfare pay."
John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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War on Poverty: Portraits From an Appalachian Battleground, 1964

Jan 08, 2014

The staggering range and sheer excellence of the late John Dominis' pictures — his Korean War coverage; his portraits of pop-culture icons like Sinatra, Redford and McQueen; his beautiful treatment of the "big cats" of Africa; his virile sports photography — place him firmly among the premier photojournalists of the last 75 years. But a lesser-known photo essay that Dominis shot for LIFE magazine, focusing on the plight of Appalachians in eastern Kentucky in the early 1960s, spotlights another aspect of the man's great talent: namely, an ability to portray the forgotten and the afflicted while never sacrificing the dignity of his subjects.

Dominis, like all the greatest photographers, possessed compassion and talent in equal measure; faced with the world's ugly realities and inequalities, a furious indignation sometimes flared in the heart behind the lens, while the hands that held the camera remained rock steady.

For example, Dominis shot an extraordinary 12-page feature for the Jan. 31, 1964, issue of LIFE, titled "The Valley of Poverty" — one of the very first substantive reports in any American publication on President Lyndon Johnson's nascent War on Poverty.

At the time, LIFE was arguably the most influential weekly magazine in the country, and without doubt the most widely read magazine anywhere to regularly publish major photo essays by the world's premier photojournalists. In that light, LIFE was in a unique position in the early days of Johnson's administration to not merely tell but to show its readers what was at stake, and what the challenges were, as the new president's "Great Society" got under way.

"The Valley of Poverty," illustrated with some of the most powerful and intimate photographs of Dominis' career, served (and still serves today) as an indictment of a wealthy nation's indifference, and a plea — if not a demand — that the rest of the country not turn its back on the suffering of so many of its citizens.

As LIFE put it to the magazine's readers in January 1964:

In a lonely valley in eastern Kentucky, in the heart of the mountainous region called Appalachia, live an impoverished people whose plight has long been ignored by affluent America. Their homes are shacks without plumbing or sanitation. Their landscape is a man-made desolation of corrugated hills and hollows laced with polluted streams. The people, themselves — often disease-ridden and unschooled — are without jobs and even without hope. Government relief and handouts of surplus food have sustained them on a bare subsistence level for so many years that idleness and relief are now their accepted way of life.

President Johnson, who has declared "unconditional war on poverty in America," has singled out Appalachia as a major target. . . . Appalachia stretches from northern Alabama to southern Pennsylvania, and the same disaster that struck eastern Kentucky hit the whole region — the collapse of the coal industry 20 years ago, which left Appalachia a vast junkyard. It was no use for the jobless miners to try farming — strip mining has wrecked much of the land and, in any case, the miners had lost contact with the soil generations ago. . . . Unless the grim chain [of unemployment and lack of education] can be broken, a second generation coming of age in Appalachia will fall into the same dismal life — a life that protects them from starvation but deprives them of self-respect and hope.

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