Jack Corn’s donation of Appalachian works adds important chapter to Special Collections
Unforgettable images of coal miners and their families in Appalachia have been donated by award-winning photojournalist Jack Corn to Vanderbilt’s Special Collections, bolstering the libraries’ collected works of journalists and providing a vivid historical reference for this important social era.
Corn’s works helped explain the lives of the Appalachian people to the rest of the country before the era of the Internet. His image of three children on the porch of a dilapidated home became the face of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, helping Americans see the people behind the severe poverty and desolation that plagued the region.
“This is an important chapter in history, and people ought to know about it,” Corn said. “Donating these photographs to the Vanderbilt Library is the right thing to do. I want people to understand this small niche of history.”
“Jack’s photographs document an important part of the nation’s history, a part that many would like to sweep under the rug,” said Dean of Libraries Connie Vinita Dowell. “His collection will prove to be an invaluable resource for historians, sociologists and art historians.”
“Jack Corn’s exceptional talents and insights bring to light the lives of those miners whose hard work heated our homes, even while their families paid a terrible price,” Provost Richard McCarty said. “These dramatic images tell the story more clearly than any text I could imagine.”
Corn’s photography career began at The Tennessean, his hometown paper, where he rose to chief photographer and worked with John Seigenthaler and Jim Squires. Corn later became director of photography for the Chicago Tribune and then photojournalist-in-residence at Western Kentucky University.
“As a journalist, I teamed with Jack Corn on many assignments and came to understand his unique ability to capture—in a flash with a single photograph—the essence of a human interest story that I had struggled to write,” said Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center. “So often, the written word seemed wasted beside Corn’s work. Viewers of this collection will see art that bespeaks joy, pain, anger, elation, dejection, faith—and so much more. His photographs now enrich the life of the Vanderbilt library as they once enriched the newspapers in which they were published.”
Corn began documenting life in Appalachia through newspaper assignments and then on his own. In 1973, he participated in Documerica, a monumental photodocumentary project to record changes in the American environment. For the project, Corn focused his lens on the plight of the American coal miner. He later wrote, “I submitted a plan to photograph the effects of coal mining on both the environment and the people who mined the coal.”
Assisting in curating the Corn exhibit was senior Emily Cook, the library’s first Heard Fellow. The fellowship program is for seniors and graduate students interested in participating in strategic library projects, and it is one of the important ways that the library reaches out to students for input.