... Photo Exhibitions   Oral History   Historical Essay 

Main Introduction

This retrospective explores the life and work of George Harvan of Lansford, Pennsylvania, a remarkable documentary photographer. The son of a Slovak-born miner, Harvan spent over 50 years recording the work and community life of the last generation of underground miners in the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania. This documentary record speaks to the resilience and dignity of men and women living hard lives in a region hit by catastrophic economic decline: it is one man's quest to record and present those times and that spirit to more than a regional audience.

Although Harvan's photographs are well-known and well-respected locally, they have not received the broader recognition they merit. This online presentation uses multiple resources to bring George Harvan's work to a wider audience. Viewers and readers have three overlapping avenues through which to explore the legacy of George Harvan: a photo exhibition, an oral history, and a historical essay. Each route offers multiple entry points into the array of visual, oral, and textual resources presented in this electronic retrospective. Each, we trust, takes advantage of the rich possibilities for multimedia history offered by the Web and online publishing. We are grateful for this opportunity to bring George Harvan's story and photography to a broader public.

Central to appreciating Harvan's achievements is the major online exhibition of almost 280 photographs shot between 1946 and 1999. Organized in roughly chronological order, the exhibition brings together for the first time the full range of Harvan's work—from his earliest professional photographs shot in occupied Japan, through his extensive documentation of underground mining in the Panther Valley, to more recent experimental work with Polaroid and pinhole photography. Text and audio explications by George Harvan accompany the photographs, allowing him to reflect on his life and explain his techniques and goals as a documentary photographer.

Harvan's personal life and professional development are detailed in extensive text and audio excerpts from a series of five interviews conducted between May 1997 and January 1998. In them, Harvan describes his upbringing in the mining town of Lansford, Pennsylvania, his discovery of documentary photography while serving in World War II, and his fifty-year career following his 1947 return to Lansford. The edited transcripts include Harvan family photographs as well as links to the photos Harvan discusses in the interviews. Also, for those interested in listening to the original interviews, there are links to audio segments of those recordings.

Finally, we offer an essay that places Harvan within a historical and photographic context. We examine how his documentary photography shows the influence of important currents in the broader cultural history of the nation—while at the same time faithfully reflecting the local ethnic and regional culture from which it emerged. Like the retrospective as a whole, the essay draws heavily on visual evidence, making numerous hypertext links to photographs and World Wide Web sites in presenting its case.

George Harvan repeatedly turned down professional opportunities that would have taken him from his roots in the Pennsylvania anthracite region; nonetheless, he found ample opportunities for growth and artistic expression. He created a unique photographic record, one that illuminates human struggles while revealing the best of human possibilities. Join with us in exploring this record; we are confident you will be awed by the vision of this most modest of men.

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Photo Exhibitions

George Harvan is a major American photographer of the second half of the twentieth century. He is generally acknowledged to be the premier documentary photographer of the last generation of underground miners in the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania. He explored just as perceptively other scenes and peoples in a career spanning more than half a century.

There is good reason for mounting the online retrospective assembled here. George Harvan currently enjoys an enviable local reputation. In the past twenty years his work has been exhibited frequently in Pennsylvania, and numerous photographs have appeared in general and specialized magazines. His mining photographs have enjoyed notable and well-deserved attention—the Lehigh University Art Gallery in South Bethlehem is home to a major collection of his mining photographs. However, there has never been a major exhibition presenting the entire range of his photographic work over his fifty-year career. His photographs of the Amish and Pennsylvania country auctions have typically appeared singly. More than half of the almost 280 photographs assembled for this online exhibition have never been published or appeared in a public showing.

One can only fully evaluate George Harvan's work by placing individual photos and groups of photos within the broader context of his entire body of work. We hope that this major exhibition of his work, coupled with his oral history, and our historical essay, will introduce George Harvan and his work to a broader audience and contribute to a growing awareness of his significance in the evolving history of documentary photography in the United States. Proceed to Photo Collections

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Oral History

Documentary photography does not exist in a vacuum. George Harvan's portfolio emerged photograph by photograph, one project after another. The photographs and projects that occupied him were reflections of the world he lived in and the experiences that shaped him. Since 1946, when he began taking professional photographs in occupied Japan, Harvan has accumulated an impressive body of work. That work, especially his photos of the last generation of underground miners in Pennsylvania's anthracite region merits critical attention.

I began to record a series of recorded oral history interviews with George Harvan in May 1997. I wanted to better understand his artistic evolution, and I sensed others would benefit from a fuller appreciation of his life story as well. We taped about seven hours of interviews in five sessions between May 1997 and January 1998. Initially George Harvan talked about his life and the experiences that shaped his emergence and development as a photographer. Later he focused on specific projects and reflected on what he had tried to do and what he thought he had accomplished over his extended career.

After transcribing the taped interviews, I gave him an opportunity to edit the transcripts and to elaborate on our discussions. Possessing a clear idea of the story he wanted to tell, and not always satisfied with his first oral efforts, Harvan revised the interview transcripts extensively. The resulting edited transcripts total 272 double-spaced pages and offer a rich primary source on his life and professional work.

In preparing this retrospective, I have further edited the transcripts. I have concentrated on Harvan's life and his thoughts about his work and photography in general. I edited out some extended portions about other Harvan family members and occasionally combined some of Harvan's responses. I have not added or changed any words from the edited versions of the interview transcripts George Harvan himself prepared. Most of the original questions and conversation that occurred during the interviews remain. I am hopeful readers will benefit from a clear sense of the context in which Harvan constructed his own narrative about his life and work.

The edited interviews are reproduced here in text and audio formats. The edited texts are supplemented with Harvan family photographs and hypertext links to significant portions of his photographic work. To permit readers to hear Harvan's responses in their original, unedited form, we include audio excerpts from each interview as well. Together, Harvan's words and images offer a rich source for future cultural and social historians trying to understand the broader meaning of industrial decline in Pennsylvania's anthracite region in the twentieth century. Proceed to Oral History

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Historical Essay

George Harvan, the son of a Slovak-born miner from Lansford, Pennsylvania, spent over fifty years documenting the decline of the underground coalmining industry in the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania. He also photographed a wide range of scenes across his native state throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Harvan worked in the documentary tradition of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and other photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the New Deal, yet Harvan is unusual in that he brings an insider's perspective to his work in northeastern Pennsylvania. He captures the lives of miners with an intimacy born of his lifelong presence in the region and a respect that reflects the values and identity he shares with his subjects.

This essay explores Harvan's roots in the Panther Valley, discusses how he became a photographer, and analyzes changes in his approach to his craft over time. Insights into the unique contributions of Harvan's work are provided through comparison with other documentary photographers working during the New Deal and in the decades after World War II. We explore how his photographs expose the social consequences of economic decline in the Pennsylvania anthracite region even as they capture the character of area residents in the face of catastrophic economic decline. Proceed to Historical Essays