The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

January 6, 2013

New look at New Deal photography in W.Va.

As soon as he saw the photo of the girl carrying a can of kerosene beside the coal train, the memories began to flow.   “She’s just left the company store,” said Lou Birurakis.

“It looks like she has quite the load.”

Lou, a native of Liberty, W.Va., remembers the store. He remembers the tipple in the distance. He remembers gathering coal beside these very railroad tracks, which once shuttled 400 railcars of coal per day from his home town of Scotts Run to far away furnaces.

Lou never knew the girl, but he remembers the place.

These and other memories come back to West Virginians in the form of a new book of photography, “New Deal Photographs of West Virginia, 1934-1943,” edited by Betty Rivard and published by West Virginia University Press.

The girl with the kerosene adorns its cover. Marion Post Wolcott, one of several photographers who produced Depression-era images of West Virginia for the federal government, took it in 1938.

The photographs in Rivard’s book are helping us see the disappeared and disappearing landscapes of our state. Rivard also hopes they will inspire West Virginians to look again at the beauty and individuality that still remains.

In 1934, the federal government began sending photographers out to document the realities of rural Americans caught in the maw of the Great Depression.

Hardship, of course, was a major theme. But at the same time, the photographers were charged with highlighting New Deal programs aimed at easing people’s suffering.

In the process, noted artists like Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott produced a rich account of everyday life in the coalfields, farm lands and river ways of West Virginia.

“We had the best photographers in the world come to this little depressed mining area,” said Morgantown resident Mark Crabtree, who has spent considerable energy retracing legendary photographer Walker Evans’ time in northern West Virginia.

They trained their lenses on everything from houseboats in the Kanawha River to a coal miner’s daughter mesmerized by a carnival show in Granville to an evangelist preaching at a lumber mill in Richwood.

“It was a movement. They were crusaders,” said Rivard, a Braxton County resident and retired social worker.

“The mainstream press was very hostile to Roosevelt, so they were trying to reach over the mainstream press to get the word out and show what was really going on. But they also wanted to say ‘Your dollars are making a difference and these are your accomplishments.’”

The artists worked under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and, later, other agencies. Rivard refers to the whole photographic project as the FSA Project.

The mission of the project’s director, Roy Stryker, was “to introduce Americans to America.”

Rivard’s book, likewise, is showing West Virginians to themselves in a way that dignifies our history and struggles.

It would have been easy to fill the pages with images of Appalachian suffering, poverty displayed for shock value. But the reality that FSA photographers captured was clearly more complex than that.

As she selected images, Rivard was wary of oversampling those representing poverty conditions, striving instead to show “a balanced view of the state.”

Only after much deliberation, for example, did she include the widely-published photo of an emaciated woman with tuberculosis living in an abandoned company store.

In the end, Rivard said she was struck by the woman’s “bravery,” and the sense that she was saying something important to the camera.

This sensitivity can be traced back to the book’s origins — a conversation between Rivard and historian Ron Lewis about the roots of sensational images of backwoods culture in national media.

Lewis mentioned the FSA photos of West Virginia. Rivard went home, turned on her computer, and “went crazy” browsing the many hundreds of images archived on the Library of Congress website.

That was in 2001. Since then, Rivard has worked to share the photographs with people living in the very places they were taken.

She met with residents of the Logan County town of Omar, for example, where FSA photographers documented the community’s racial diversity. The images show segregation, but they also show blacks and whites living alongside each other.

“They really had a lot of meaning for people now because some of them had a lot of experiences since they were children in the 1930s with integration and segregation. And they ended up talking about that,” said Rivard.

“I just heard lots and lots of stories. These pictures really seemed to bring that out in a good way.”

At an exhibit in Logan, a group of young, black women studied the images.

“They really related to the photos. They knew the places. ‘Oh, that’s right up from where my grandmother lives.’ They had connections with Omar,” said Rivard.

Rivard, too, formed personal connections through the project. In Morgantown, she met two sisters and the daughter of a woman photographed by Walker Evans as she sold ice cream and cake in downtown Osage, Monongalia County.

From a family of singers, the women would go on to perform at a lecture given by Rivard and Crabtree for the 75th anniversary of the photos.

A landscape photographer herself, Rivard recently exhibited some of her work with young documentarian Elaine McMillion. They called the exhibit “Beautiful McDowell County.”

“I was very intent on having those three words in the art listings in the newspaper, because I knew it would help promote the idea that we need to look again,” she said of a county often portrayed by media as destitute and without hope.

“I’ve gotten so many comments about those three words — Beautiful McDowell County.”

During the Great Depression, FSA photographers reminded urban Americans of something they didn’t see every day — a rural way of life, troubled by circumstance.

Now, Rivard hopes the photographs will remind West Virginians themselves of what negative stereotypes can obscure — the beauty and spirit of those who survived hard times.

“We can be very proud of our rural and small town roots and the character and spirit of the people, some of whom are still with us, who lived through those times,” said Rivard.

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