These bleak pictures appear to show America in the grip of the 1920s Great Depression. The reality is that they were taken in the 1960s, in a lonely valley in Eastern Kentucky long forgotten by affluent America. The pictures of Appalachia were taken by photographer John Dominis, and appeared in 1964 issue of LIFE, titled ‘The Valley of Poverty’ — one of the very first substantive reports in any American publication on President Lyndon Johnson’s nascent War on Poverty.
At the time, LIFE was arguably the most influential weekly magazine in the country, and without doubt the most widely read magazine anywhere to regularly publish major photo essays by the world’s premier photojournalists. In that light, LIFE was in a unique position in the early days of Johnson’s administration to not merely tell but to show its readers what was at stake, and what the challenges were, as the new president’s “Great Society” got under way.
As LIFE put it to the magazine’s readers in January 1964:
“In a lonely valley in eastern Kentucky, in the heart of the mountainous region called Appalachia, live an impoverished people whose plight has long been ignored by affluent America. Their homes are shacks without plumbing or sanitation. Their landscape is a man-made desolation of corrugated hills and hollows laced with polluted streams. The people, themselves — often disease-ridden and unschooled — are without jobs and even without hope. Government relief and handouts of surplus food have sustained them on a bare subsistence level for so many years that idleness and relief are now their accepted way of life.”
(Photos: John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)