Kayla Holdgreve explores family, folklore in ‘Black Mountain’

The Columbus photographer traced the roots of her new exhibit back to the death of her great-great-grandfather, who was shot and killed during a 1920 coal mining strike.
One of the images in Kayla Holdgreve's "Black Mountain"
One of the images in Kayla Holdgreve's "Black Mountain"Courtesy the photographer

Kayla Suzanne Holdgreve grew up in Lima, Ohio, but she has deep family roots in Harlan County, Kentucky, including a great-great-grandfather, General Gibson, who was shot and killed during a coal mining strike in 1920 – a death recounted in the book Hell in Harlan, a firsthand account by George Titler of the violent attacks waged against striking workers in Appalachia.

“I always knew the story [of his death], but that was really all I knew,” said Holdgreve, whose grandfather and great-grandfather rarely opened up about their experiences from those years the family lived in Kentucky before uprooting and moving to Ohio in the 1930s or 40s. “But last spring, my grandfather had a heart attack, and when he was in the hospital room, the documentary ‘Harlan County, USA’ was playing on the TV, and I thought, what are the odds? And so, we got to talking, and he hinted at a few more stories. And then this idea that there was something more here came into my mind, and it just stuck with me.”

This initial spark begins to take physical form in “Black Mountain,” a new photo exhibit by Holdgreve that opens at Sean Christopher Gallery on Saturday, Dec. 2. Composed of stark black and white photographs captured during a trip to Harlan County, the exhibit finds Holdgreve exploring larger concepts such as family folklore, the roots of tradition, and the stories the land has left to tell after the people have departed. 

Holdgreve started the project by researching the history of coal mining, along with Appalachian folklore. She also dug deeper into her own family tree, taking an Ancestry DNA test and talking to her grandfather in an attempt to pinpoint specific locations in Harlan County where her relatives had lived.

“I decided it was important for me to go down to these places and photograph them having some idea in mind of the pictures I wanted to take,” said Holdgreve, who traced her interest in photography to a high school assignment that asked her to document the deteriorating billboards hung on buildings in downtown Lima. “But then I also wanted to have an open mind and just experience the landscape down there.”

In October, Holdgreve and her girlfriend spent a week traveling the countryside in and around Kentucky, visiting shuttered coal mines, Appalachian towns and mining-scarred mountaintops, during which she captured hundreds of images. At one point, Holdgreve stopped and took photographs at the Pinnacle Overlook – a location where both her grandfather and great-grandfather had been photographed as younger men. She also pursued the ghost of her great-great-grandfather, General Gibson, visiting coordinates related to his story, though she said these explorations didn’t turn up anything concrete. 

“I didn’t find what I was looking for, necessarily,” Holdgreve said. “But it was nice to be in the area knowing my personal history with it, and also thinking about these ideas related to storytelling and folklore and how histories are passed down. And then there was just knowing how old these mountains were, and asking what that means. … I think processing memory and generational trauma, and knowing things like lineage and place, is important for me to heal and understand.”

While visiting Kentucky, Holdgreve said she was struck by the natural beauty of the area, which created a natural tension with the violent incident in which the project was initially rooted. “I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate that,” the photographer said. “I think it’s important to show the truth and the beauty and not focus solely on death. But also, you can’t not talk about those darker things, too, especially since aspects of this work are centered on [my great-great-grandfather’s] death.”

This isn’t the first time the photographer has searched for inspiration within her bloodline. For her thesis, Holdgreve completed a body of work dubbed “A Bushel and a Peck,” which centered on her great-grandmother and the women in her family, leading to images that she said were more feminine in nature than those on display in “Black Mountain.” 

“I didn’t really think about that until just now, but the images shaped by my great-grandmother and the women in my family felt a lot softer,” Holdgreve said. “This work, I have more solid, black and white images … and it’s a little more masculine because [it’s related to] my grandfather and great-great grandfather.”

Holdgreve said the images on display in “Black Mountain” are only the first in what she envisions as an ongoing interrogation, and she has plans to create works layered with things such as coal dust and dirt – the latter of which she collected from various locations while traversing Harlan County.

“So, I’ll have pieces that will incorporate these materials, and the process will continue to evolve,” she said. “I have some concrete ideas, but I’m also just letting the work flow where it needs to go. … I definitely think this is going to be a several year project and I’m just now at the beginning.”

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