The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 6, 2013

New look at New Deal photography in W.Va.

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

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.

The son of Greek immigrants, Lou Birurakis grew up in Scotts Run, a cluster of coal mining communities stretched along a creek by that name in Morgantown.

Once, Eleanor Roosevelt came to his house to watch his mother bake bread in an outdoor oven, just like back in Greece.

As Rivard shows in her book, both Scotts Run and Eleanor Roosevelt were instrumental in the creation of Arthurdale, a New Deal “planned community” in Preston County. The town was part of a larger vision put forth by the Subsistence Homesteads Division, a New Deal agency.

 Arthurdale, one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s pet projects, was an attempt to resettle poor laborers in a modern, self-sufficient, rural community. Many families who ended up there were from the Scotts Run area.

“Scotts Run is the father and Roosevelt is the mother — when those two got together, Arthurdale was born,” said Lou, a keeper of history in his home community.

But Lou’s family wasn’t allowed to move to Arthurdale. Though Roosevelt disagreed with the rule, Arthurdale was for native-born whites only. Historian Ron Lewis estimates that only 20 percent of Scotts Run were eligible.

But Lou has a positive take on his family’s exclusion from Arthurdale.

“I’m kind of glad, because the result has been that when I grew up, we had to struggle.

“We had a piece of ground that was a steep hillside. We worked hard to develop that piece of land to survive. We had to haul rocks and dirt and topsoil to build walls and terrace the ground so it would grow food. And by working that area, it made me a tough guy.”

Scotts Run is nearly gone. As coal companies closed up, towns were torn down. Large roads projects also changed the landscape in dramatic ways. Now, the small family plots have nearly all been bought up and bulldozed to make way for commercial development along the highway.

“You go out there now, and other than the little town of Osage, there’s very little sign of what was there. You have to use your imagination,” says Crabtree.

He’s inspired enough by the photographs to hunt down where they were taken.

In particular, he wanted to see if he could find the boy in a 1935 portrait by Walker Evans. He gazes into the camera from a simple wooden chair in a miner’s shack wallpapered with cheerful advertisements.

“That’s what really got me out there, to find out who that boy was,” said Crabtree.

Though he’s spoken with many people who would have been the same age as the boy, he’s never found a trace of him or the shack.

“Even finding those spots is hard. That land is gone. That spot is gone.”

But he keeps trying to put the pieces together — tracking down Evans’s diary entries from the time of the shoot, driving through the hills to catch a glimpse of something that could remain from Evans’s time here.

“He pointed his camera more or less straight at a thing and saw it more clearly than anyone else,” said Crabtree. “Often it’s the ordinary thing. It’s dumbfounding. I don’t think anybody else has ever done it or understood it.”

“Evans just stood there and said, ‘Here it is.’”

The next year, Evans would go on to do some of his most famous work with tenant farmers in the American west.

Rivard, too, has been inspired to retrace the route taken by FSA photographer Marion Post Wolcott through McDowell County on Davy Road, where a proposed four-lane highway will soon increase access for residents and change the dynamics of the area forever.

“I got very curious about these little communities she visited. There are remnants of some of them, and some have disappeared,” said Rivard.

“I’ve been on Davy Road a lot of times now and I’ve stopped and talked to some people and gotten a feel for it. There’s a certain magic about it because it’s a little off the beaten path.

“There are places where you can really see what she saw.”

Rivard — with the help of people like Crabtree and Birurakis — has worked for a decade to piece these fragmented images together to tell a story.

Some other states had New Deal photography books out years ago. It has taken West Virginia a bit longer, but the thoughtful essays by Rivard and others that accompany the photos are worth the time it has taken to get it right.

“It took Betty to pull it all together and do extensive research to find out how all the pieces fit together,” said Beverly Brannon, curator of Photography in the Prints and Photo Division of the Library of Congress.

“She has brought a lot of written material out of hiding. I think it took somebody who was from West Virginia and knew a lot about the state to be able to pull that information together.

“It’s a very rich book. It was done with depth and I think it will make a future contribution to scholarship about these photographs, these places, and the photographers who worked there.”

Only a few pictures of West Virginia are part of the FSA canon, says Brannon, but because Rivard selected broadly, she found some “sleepers” that were being overlooked.

“Nobody had been paying attention to them,” she says.

Rivard, a retired social worker, hopes that will change.

And by looking at this difficult past through the lens of gifted artists, she hopes West Virginians will also see the basis for a better future.

“One of the main challenges that people faced then, as we do now, is to believe in ourselves and do the best we can with what we have, including our faith, our families, our communities, our dedication and work ethic and the beauty of our natural surroundings,” she said.

“There is and always has been a great spirit in the state and a can do approach that impressed the photographers, came through in their photographs, and is the foundation for planning and progress into the future.”

She hopes photographers and artists will build on the legacy of the collection.

For more information on “New Deal Photographs of West Virginia,” visit

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