Rivard Presents Images of Bygone West Virginia

Bygone images of rural West Virginia scenes and residents were shown at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling Tuesday, July 9.

Betty Rivard, a fine art landscape photographer, presented a Lunch With Books program on a new book, “New Deal Photographs of West Virginia, 1934-1943,” that she edited. She also displayed present-day photos of some of the same sites taken by photographer Mark Crabtree of Morgantown, formerly of Wellsburg.

The book presents more than 150 images taken by 10 photographers, including Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, who were hired by the Farm Security Administration from 1934-43 to document the everyday lives of West Virginians during the Great Depression and early years of World War II.

The photographers captured more than 1,600 images of the state’s northern and southern coalfields, the subsistence homestead projects of Arthurdale, Eleanor and Tygart Valley and various other communities, Rivard said. There is no evidence of any photos taken in the Northern Panhandle, she added.

Rivard said the book’s photos, except where noted, came from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. All are in the public domain. “It’s a wonderful project,” she remarked.

She explained that the Farm Security Administration had three main reasons for hiring photographers to visit West Virginia:

  • To show problems, many of which were hidden. Beginning in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to present photos for the media to influence policy makers.

– To show how the government was helping.

– To show everyday life in small-town and rural America. “That was something that people in big cities didn’t necessarily relate to,” she siid. The idea of the photographic project was “to introduce America to Americans.”

Capturing images of people working together also “helped to create a communal spirit that came into play in fighting World War II,” she said. A series of photographs taken by Arthur Siegel in Point Pleasant in 1943 all focused on the homefront, she noted.

Evans, the most famous photographer who worked on the project, took many of the shots, including one showing typical houses in Morgantown in the summer of 1935. “The detail is fascinating. You can even see people sitting on the back porches,” Rivard pointed out.

At that time, “Walker Evans was already a well-known, accomplished photographer with a base in New York,” she said.

Evans, the first photographer to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, used a large-format camera a lot, with a tripod and hood over him, Rivard said. He also shot two plates: one that he gave to the government and one that he kept. Evidence of this practice can be seen in his photos of a boy in a shack. The boy is shown with a slight smile in the photo in the MOMA collection, but the boy isn’t smiling in the image shown in Rivard’s book, she said.

A lot of the photos shot in West Virginia “took on a life of their own,” Rivard said, citing Evans’ famous picture taken in an unemployed man’s house. That photo also appears in West Virginia native Cynthia Rylant’s book of poems about New Deal programs, she said.

Shahn’s photo of a deputy “has been published over and over again,” Rivard said. “He (Shahn) already had a reputation as an artist before he came to West Virginia.” Shahn shared a studio with Evans in New York and had a cottage in Provincetown, Mass.

When hired for this project, Shahn had just started using a camera, and he used some of his photos as the basis for paintings, Rivard explained. One of the photos turned into a painting depicts men looking through a wall in Westover to watch a ball game.

Rivard said Shahn’s photos showing a guitar being passed between white and black men have been used in books about roots music.

Marion Post Wolcott spent a couple of weeks in West Virginia in 1938 and took about one-third of the photos that were taken in the state, Rivard said. Showing Wolcott’s shot of men standing by a courthouse, the editor remarked, “The picture really validated the stories I’d heard over the years of what life was like in West Virginia.”

Roy Stryker, chief of the project, was protective of Wolcott, a single woman traveling alone. Rivard related that Stryker told Wolcott to wear dresses, but she responded, “I get only the most appropriate trousers to wear.”

Rivard showed Wolcott’s controversial image of a Mexican miner and said the photo caught the attention of Gov. Homer A. Holt who contended that “West Virginia was all Anglo-American.” Rivard said Holt also didn’t like Wolcott’s photo of a miner bathing in a washtub “because it looked like West Virginians didn’t have plumbing.”

Officials of West Virginia University Press selected Wolcott’s photo of a girl standing by a train as the cover illustration for the new book. The photo, taken in Monongalia County, was shown in a MOMA exhibit in 1963, Rivard said. One of Wolcott’s biographers said that “with this picture she sealed her tenure and her job.”

The photographers were “ecstatic” about the West Virginia project, and “their salaries were good for those days,” Rivard said. “This was not a make-work project. Stryker picked people because they were or could become good photographers,” she explained.

“Some stayed on the road for months at a time,” she said. “They were very dedicated. Esprit de corps developed.” Several of the photographers went on to work for Look and Life magazines.

Regarding her own work, Rivard said her next project is a new exhibit of Siegel’s photographs at the Point Pleasant River Museum, opening Friday, Aug. 2. The editor said her next book will feature photographs taken by Siegel at the Bethlehem-Fairfields Shipyard in Baltimore in May 1943.

“It’s an absolutely amazing collection of photographs,” Rivard commented. “I’ll be in Baltimore next week to start work on that.”