Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.
Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.
Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany's Lausitz region.
Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.
Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering's compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.
Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.
They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.
Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.
The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.
"It was visually overwhelming," Doering said. "I've always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade."
The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.
When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.
Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany's decades-long mine-planning process.
The region has some of the world's richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany's ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.
Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.
"Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification," Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. "There is a distrust of outsiders."
But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.
Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, "The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people's life stories are unbelievably interesting."
Doering's photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.
There is also a push for "industrial" tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.
"People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn't normally look at," he said. "It starts some unexpected conversations" about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by "war on coal" rhetoric.
One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design's efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.
Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. "It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that's the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area," he said.
Doering said he doesn't know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.
"They have forged some odd alliances," he said. "They have found a way to work together and get stuff done."