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From front lines to a 'Secret Garden'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Laura Antrim Caskey has been in the trenches.

"It's pretty accurate to say I've been on the front lines here in West Virginia for quite a while now," said the 43-year-old photojournalist, speaking from her home in Rock Creek.

Caskey moved from Brooklyn to Rock Creek in Raleigh County in 2008 to surround herself with communities and activists caught up in the fight to end mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

Her work as a freelance photojournalist has won awards and acclaim. In 2010, she self-published a 74-page photographic examination of mountaintop removal titled "Dragline," which was recognized in the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights' annual journalism awards.

Through it all, she has taken other sorts of photographs -- abstract, minimal, nature-centric. It  is this change of pace that will be seen in an exhibition of 20 images titled "Secret Garden," at Good News Mountaineer Garage, 221 Hale St. The exhibit opens during the Charleston ArtWalk on Thursday and is up through Oct. 11.

"Realistically, I need this respite," said Caskey, who has worked from Afghanistan to Antarctica, with work published as far afield as Rolling Stone, Nature, Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Times.

Her hyper-involved work on mountaintop removal led her in 2009 to undertake a one-year "embed," to document up close Climate Ground Zero's civil disobedience campaign against the practice.

She is the first to admit she became obsessed with the issue and has tried to get as close as she can to the issues and intense emotions roiling coal field communities.

"It is such an emotional and devastating issue and I really did try to feel as much as possible all the things community members would tell me."

So, "Secret Garden" is a change-up, she said, "veering off from this classic photojournalist style to something like fine art. I think it's something in between fine art and photojournalism."

Some of the images are abstract cityscapes, some are nature pictures where "half the photo is about the graphic quality of it and line and shape and all that."

The inspiration for "Secret Garden" came about through workshops with master photographers Jeff Jacobson and Maggie Steber. In working through six years of work and thousands of photos, Caskey said Steber had advice for some of them: 'You really need to keep a file of these that are like your 'Secret Garden.'

"While I was so immersed in this reportage, I couldn't help but make these other pictures off to the side," Caskey said.

Her issue-oriented photojournalism is still going strong, she said, but "I think 'Secret Garden' will be a continuing vein for me. This is kind of like my first pass at it. This is more the artist in me rather than the journalist."

Working in West Virginia, so passionately wrapped up in documenting mountaintop removal's impact on average lives, has constantly presented to her photographer's eye a conundrum reflected in this show. 

"You can turn and look out on the moonscape or you can turn and look at some leaves and light and there might be your secret garden there behind you.

"My constant struggle is how to look at it in a new and fresh way. In the meantime, 'Secret Garden' helps me do that and shifts my perspective from the overwhelming devastation to another slice of life in the world around us."

For more on ArtWalk, which runs 5 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 19, visit charlestonartwalk.com.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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