Mike Smith first discovered photography while serving with the United States Army in Vietnam in the early 1970s. He went on to earn a BFA in photography from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and an MFA in photography from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. He is Professor Emeritus of Photography at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, where he began teaching in 1981. He has been the recipient of prestigious awards such as a Guggenheim Fellowship, the United States Artist Lowe Fellowship, and the Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award. Smith’s work is included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Museum of Modern Art, all in New York City. His photography focuses on the culture and landscape of the area around Johnson City, Tennessee, where he lives and teaches, a site deep in the heart of Southern Appalachia.
Though Smith has lived in this region for years, he still recognizes himself as an outsider. He identifies the people of the area as very Christian and welcoming to him, a stranger, whom they invite into their homes and onto their property. Smith notes that Appalachia remains “a strange and wonderful mixture of past and present culture…. People here still hunt and trap coon, bear, rabbit, and squirrel.” A case in point, Unicoi, Tennessee (1998), shows two hunting dogs inhabiting makeshift shelters, one a small shed and the other an old oil drum. The property has other dilapidated structures, including a crumbling trailer amid an abundance of overgrown trees and vines. Smith’s photograph doesn’t hide the condition of the structures, and this image carries a current that runs through much of his work: signs of poverty and its effects in the region.
Some of Smith’s photographs poke sly fun at the juxtaposition of past and present cultures in Appalachia. Washington County, Tennessee (2010), for example, presents several cows wading in a small pond while, in the distance, we see a group of mansions in a new housing development. Smith’s image seems to suggest that, even in a fancy new home, Appalachians still live in close proximity to barnyard noises and smells. Likewise, in Johnson City, Tennessee (2004), a backdrop of rolling farmland frames the imposing structure of a megamart gas station. Only one customer inhabits this expansive space as he fills up his car and casually observes the pump. Smith’s photograph highlights the contrast between the clean, modern lines of the station and the farms across the street. The heightened contrast emphasizes the friction between past and present, rural and urban, and contributes to Smith’s overall vision of an Appalachia not only rich with tradition, but also growing and changing.