Earl Dotter began his photographic career after completing his studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 1968 he joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and was assigned to the Cumberland Plateau Region of Tennessee. Over time, he was welcomed into the homes of coal mining families. He came to know and respect their culture and struggles — a relationship that continues to this day. After his VISTA assignment concluded, he remained in the area to photograph the rank-and-file movement to reform the United Mine Workers Union, then under the corrupt leadership of Tony Boyle. In 1972 he was invited to join the staff of the reformers’ newspaper, The Miner’s Voice, and subsequently became the photographer for the campaign to unseat Boyle, called “Miners for Democracy.” When the election effort proved successful, Dotter went to work for the UMWA Journal, where he remained until 1977.
The emphasis of the Journal was on improving miners’ health and safety and the quality of life in their communities. His position enabled him to record the intimate aspects of daily life — the dangers of mining underground, the hardships of living on abused land, and also the joys, dignity and culture that sustained coalmine families. It became a decade of intense creative development for him, during which he learned not just what to photograph, but how to create an image that would impact the viewer both visually and emotionally. The lessons learned during his “coalfield years” still guide his work today.
Throughout the 1980′s, Dotter photographed a wide array of occupational subjects. His photography has consistently been given life and texture by shooting not just the work, but the whole worker and his or her life on the job, at home, and in the community. Over the years, his subjects have expanded from an emphasis on occupational health and safety to include environmental hazards to public health.
The evolution was only logical, since the adverse conditions which first affect people on the job, as they take the “first hit” from exposure to carcinogens, toxins, and industrial waste, eventually make their way out of the worksite and into the air and water of the surrounding environment.
In the Spring of 1996, he began the tour of his exhibit, THE QUIET SICKNESS: A Photographic Chronicle of Hazardous Work in America. After initial exhibits in Washington, DC and at the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library, the photography exhibit with over 100 works began a tour of the six New England states, sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Occupational Health Program. AIHA Press published the book of the same name as the exhibit in the Spring of 1998.
In 1999 he was appointed without stipend to the Visiting Scholars Program at the HSPH. The exhibit, “APPALACHIAN CHRONICLE, 1969-1999: The Photographs of Earl Dotter,” began its initial showing at The University of Virginia’s Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon in connection with the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association. Subsequently the exhibit has moved to the Appalshop Gallery in Whitesburg, Kentucky and Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.’
Earl Dotter is the recipient of the Josephine Patterson Albright Fellowship in Photography for the year 2000 from The Alicia Patterson Foundation. His fellowship project title is: “COMMERCIAL FISHING, Our Most Perilous Trade.” The grant will provide support to document the hazards faced by commercial fishermen far offshore in the North Atlantic as well as in the hand harvesting fisheries along the New England Coast.
His completed fellowship project has now yielded a number of published articles and a new photo exhibit. “Winter Harvest of Danger” is the cover feature in the journal of the U.S. Public Health Service, “Public Health Reports,” July-August 2002 issue. This photo-essay article will also be featured in the fall issue of “Maritime Life and Traditions.”
The title of Earl Dotter’s new photo exhibit, created during his Alicia Patterson Fellowship in 2000, is “THE PRICE OF FISH, America’s Most Dangerous Trade Takes Life and Limb in New England.”