Pictures can redefine W.Va., photographer says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For people of a certain age, it began with a Brownie camera, which in its own way was the Instagram photo-sharing app of its day.
Betty Rivard, born in 1944 in Detroit, was one of the many who took up the device. Rivard grew up with the Brownie, a simple Eastman Kodak camera that popularized low-cost photography after its introduction at the start of the 20th century.
"You talk about 'digital native,' I was black-and-white native," says Rivard, seated in Taylor Books on Capitol Street in Charleston. She cast her memory back to how her parents helped stoke her love of taking photos.
"I had had cameras from the time I was young. My father was an amateur photographer. They would buy me a new Brownie camera every year."
It's a long way from there to 2013. Therein lies a tale of how it took Rivard a lifetime, after retiring from a whole different career in social services, to finally get around to winning prizes and sales for her photos, and then taking things a further step.
For her photography passion -- "my mission," she puts it -- has also taken form on the shelves of Taylor Books. There you'll find a handsome new hardback book of 150 photos she helped to birth: "New Deal Photographs of West Virginia: 1934-1943" (West Virginia University Press).
Pictures, after all, raise issues.
When Rivard was 11, her family moved from Detroit to San Francisco. Some years later, as she pondered college, her father announced another ambitious move. The family would leap to the other side of America, to West Virginia, where he'd landed a job in Morgantown.
But not Rivard. She remained behind to attend what she dubbed her "neighborhood school," the University of California-Berkeley, which sprawls along the eastern side of San Francisco Bay.
"Back then, if you had a B-plus average and you took the core subjects, you were automatically admitted. It cost $125 a semester for tuition," said Rivard. "So, it was a very familiar place to go."
She pursued a degree in political science with a specialty in political theory. She became involved in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, which led to her arrest in 1964 -- along with 800 other students occupying an administration building. She pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest. ("What that meant is, if you went limp and allowed yourself to be carried out of the building, that was considered 'resisting arrest,'" she said.)
Cameras continued their appeal in college, she remembered. "There was a darkroom in the student union you could use for 50 cents an hour. I went in there and played with some old negatives of my family. Enough to get a taste of it."
Life intervened, as it tends to do, with other paths.
After completing Berkeley and a stint at Barnard College, in New York, she rejoined her family in West Virginia. She married, and at one point she and her husband, Rick, raised sheep in the 1970s at their Monongalia County farm. She knows the exact number still: 67 of them.
"But we were two city kids, basically, and weren't very good at it."
They had two sons (the younger, Ry, is a political reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail). A divorce came along.
She continued to work her way through a social services career, which put her to work in Marion and Monongalia counties, then finally Kanawha County and the state Capitol. Along the way, she roamed back roads helping clients, became involved in the "deinstitutionalization" of Weston State Hospital patients, did work with nursing homes.
In the concluding years of her career in Charleston she worked as executive assistant in an office devoted to state social services planning. Looking back on it all, she said: "I became a social worker and loved it. Stayed with it for 25 years."
As her professional career came to a close in the late 1990s, Rivard said, "I thought when I retired I would be a writer."
But it was the camera, not the notepad or keyboard, that caught her eye. Again.
"I started playing around with panoramic cameras and got some pieces in the state juried exhibition. I went around and asked some photographers if I could be an apprentice."
Ditch the cheapo cameras, the pros told her. "One of them, Steve Payne, said, you know, get real -- get a 35 mm and a tripod and go from there."
She apprenticed with Jurgen Lorensen in Summersville, learning darkroom techniques. She started to win awards, sell pieces.
All the while, she was pondering the role photographs could serve in improving West Virginia's image. Why didn't more museums and galleries feature fine art photos depicting a broader image of life in these hills?
"I started doing all West Virginia landscapes. I wanted to show the beauty and individuality of everyday life in West Virginia. That was actually my mission -- still is."
West Virginia has historically been ill-served by photography and by the many drive-by photo shooters and writers who've dropped in for a peek, Rivard said.
"The state has suffered from so many negative images brought in from the outside, going back to the 1880s. It's almost like you open a book and cringe. It was sort of a poster child for poverty for so long. There were these sort of mercenary journalists that came in from the East Coast and kind of invented these backwoods-type stories. Then took them back and they sold well."
Stories and photos of poor hillbillies, she said, "kind of fit in with the exploitation of the state's resources. It devalued them and it showed them as not being important."
"So, you know, it's OK to do whatever you wanted with the land."
America, meet Americans
From historian Ron Lewis at West Virginia University she learned of a trove of photos of West Virginia, shot by 10 visiting photographers dispatched through the Farm Security Administration Project in the midst of the Depression. She fired up the new purple iMac she had bought and began hunting the photos.
The New Deal program's mission was to introduce "America to Americans," encouraging support along the way for government intervention to those in need. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also able to document the Depression's impact on people's daily lives while gauging the ripples of his New Deal efforts.
A third result was a historic montage of some of the daily life at the time in America's cities, towns and backwoods.
Rivard sifted through the numerous images, settling on the 150 in "New Deal Photographs of West Virginia." The FSA photographers, among them Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn, captured both hardship and daily living on the job and off, in mines, factory and stores and on the porches, streets and stoops of the time.
The book features commentary from the field by the photographers, plus essays by Rivard, historian Jerry Bruce Thomas and Library of Congress preservation specialist Carl Fleischhauer, who co-produced a book on the ambitious FSA photo project.
Lacking funds to blanket West Virginia, shooters focused on the northern and southern coalfields, along with the New Deal-era homestead communities of Arthurdale, Eleanor and Dailey.
They captured coal miners, young cattle dealers, migrant workers. They struck out for the state's biggest cities. There's a shot of a closed steel plant in Clarksburg and a boy pushing another child in a wooden cart down a street in Charleston's Negro section. Meanwhile, a crowd of men takes a lunch break outside South Charleston's Union Carbide plant, its smokestacks streaming confidently.
Coal miners' wives talk over the fence in Capels, while another photo shows migratory workers waving on a train, departing Richwood in search of harvest work in New York. In another part of Richwood, a prim young woman in a smart dress, daughter of the editor of the Nicholas Republican newspaper, writes on a notepad in a sunlit office.
Shots of grimy, grinning kids in coal camp towns like Elkhorn, follow scenes of girls in neat uniforms and well-combed hair playing street ball in Eleanor. Eleanor had been named in honor of the president's wife, and Mrs. Roosevelt, "the First Lady of the New Deal," took a personal interest in how life was going in the Putnam County town bearing her name.
Several shots portray whites and blacks chatting amiably, waiting in lines, singing songs together over a guitar. (It should be noted, however, that Eleanor and other homestead communities were "sundown towns," which signified that blacks were in a place where they were expected to be gone from by dark. Meaning, "whites only.")
Almost a secret
But the photos overall revealed a West Virginia that was not just an ever-impoverished, seemingly hopeless place, Rivard said. This was a West Virginia she had personally encountered on her travels up hollows, moving from small town to smaller town.
"Well, I heard stories from people for years about their history -- things like 'My grandfather always wore a suit and hat when he went downtown.' Or 'My mother wore dress clothes to go to the store.'
"I knew also from my own experience driving around that there were beautiful old houses -- all over the state -- that were on back roads. And that people in their own county didn't necessarily know about them. Also, the houses like on the East End of Charleston and almost every small town has big houses with porches and craftsman-type bungalows.
"And those were all there at the same time that people were showing poor coal towns with shacks."
Sifting through the Library of Congress pictures, she came on scenes of prosperous coal towns, nice stores, decent restaurants, bustling schools, car dealerships. They offered glimpses from life in West Virginia of "things that I had never seen pictures of," she said.
"The project didn't end until 1943. I was born in 1944, so there were some photos that I could really relate to personally that showed everyday life as I personally remembered it."
She wanted other people to see too. She wanted others to witness what New Deal photographers portrayed as they moved their cameras around the state, snapping scenes of coal camp days and then afternoons of well-ordered, sometimes government-seeded, small-town life.
On her travels, "people would tell me stories about their roots," Rivard said. "And it was almost like it was a secret because it had been so devalued in their lifetimes."
A broader photographic record adds that value back in, she said. Plus, there was another thing about the photos.
"Just like I felt that current contemporary photographs of West Virginia needed to be in museums and galleries, I also felt that about the historic photos -- they stood on their own as fine art."
The result is a more complete portrait of her adopted state and its people, showcased in pictures that were sometimes stand-alone works of art, Rivard said.
"I tried to do that with my photography, but you can only do so much with what's here now. I could show an old elegant house or building, but it's really something else to see it in the context of the '30s and '40s.
"And that's what the photographers did. They were almost all incredibly respectful and really embraced the spirit of the people. And it just came through so strongly."
Read a James Casto review of the book at wvgazette.com/Entertainment/Books.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com or 304-348-3017.