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 doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.