Renée Jacobs photographs, 1979-2015

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Jacobs, Renée and Archive of Documentary Arts (Duke University)
Renée Jacobs is a documentary photographer and photojournalist whose project, "Slow Burn," documents the abandonment of Centralia, Pennsylvania due to an underground coal mine fire in the mid-1980s. Her archive includes negatives, contact sheets, gelatin silver work prints and exhibit prints, digital inkjet prints, and publication materials deriving from the project. There are also oral history interviews on audiocassette with residents of Centralia, as well as some correspondence, a 1979 federal government report on Centralia, and color photographs and negatives taken by another photographer who visited the town in 1987. Acquired as part of the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University.
15 Linear Feet (16 boxes; 1 oversize folder)
Materials in English
Collection ID:


Scope and content:

This collection contains Renée Jacobs' archive of her project Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennslyvania. Slow Burn, first published in 1986 by University of Pennsylvania Press, chronicles Centralia’s demise from an underground coal mine fire and depicts a singular epic event in Pennsylvania history, representing the confluence of environmental, scientific, bureaucratic, and emotional tragedies. As an award winning photojournalist, Jacobs moved into a house in Centralia’s impact zone in 1983 to document, in photographs and interviews, the end stages of the tiny anthracite coal town’s unsuccessful fight to resolve the intractable problems that began with the mine fire in 1962 and culminated in the razing of the town by the federal government.

Photographer Shelby Lee Adams has written of the project stating:

"Where once there was familiarity with open doors and trusting hearts, in a community that could be your home anywhere in America, an invisible cancer grew. It’s the unseen, slow-moving nature of this underground burning that took Centralia apart. The human spirit doesn’t want to believe, see, or hear what can destroy our sanctified special places in the world. Renée Jacobs faithfully and compassionately documents in pictures and words the confusion, uncertainty, and fighting spirit of Centralia’s residents—and the painful destruction and relocation of the residents of this little Pennsylvania town. Slow Burn is a compelling story about—and for—all of us.”

The archive consist of more than 200 rolls of 35mm black and white film, the accompanying contact sheets, more than 1,000 silver gelatin work prints, contemporaneous news articles, oral history interviews and vintage exhibition prints. Additionally, the archives include maquettes for the original 1986 book and the 2010 re-issue, as well as prints with printer’s notations.

Biographical / historical:

Renée Jacobs' early photojournalism included assignments for The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and many other newspapers and magazines. She received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvanatged and her work is in the permanent collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Slow Burn was originally published in 1986 and re-issued in 2010 to favorable reviews in The New York Times Review of Books and photo-eye. Renée Jacobs went on to study environmental law as a result of her work in Centralia. She practiced civil rights and constitutional law for fifteen years. In 2007 she returned to photography. Her work has been exhibited and published around the world, and has recieved the prestigious International Photography Award for Fine Art Nude among other honors.

Acquisition information:
The Renee Jacobs Photographs were received by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library as a purchase in 2016.
Processing information:

Processed by Ben Saalfeld and Meghan Lyon, February 2016; updated by Meghan Lyon, 2016.

Accessions described in this collection guide: 2016-0004, 2016-0248, 2016-0257, 2016-0274

Rules or conventions:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard


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Collection is open for research, but original audiovisual materials are closed to use. Please contact Research Services in advance of your visit to request the production of listening copies.

Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.

All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48 hours to retrieve these materials for research use.

Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.

Terms of access:

The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to Duke University. For more information, consult the copyright section of the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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Preferred citation:

[Identification of item], Renée Jacobs Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.