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Book assembles photographs of Depression-era W.Va.

By James E. Casto

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Between 1934 and 1943, 10 talented photographers came to West Virginia and produced a series of striking photographs depicting the impact of the Great Depression on the state and its people.

The 10 were part of a larger corps of photographers who crisscrossed the nation, dispatched by a federal agency, the Farm Security Administration, to locales stretching from Maine to California. Their efforts produced a body of work now looked on as one of the most significant and influential collections in the history of photography.

In recent years, at least two dozen states have seen publication of books bringing together FSA photographs taken in those states. Now, thanks to the editing efforts of award-winning landscape photographer Betty Rivard, West Virginia has joined this group with a long-overdue book of its own.

Rivard's "New Deal Photographs of West Virginia, 1934-43" contains more than 150 images taken in the state by FSA photographers, including Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn.

Never more than a tiny cog in the federal bureaucracy, the FSA lacked the resources to photograph every part of every state. And so, Roy K. Stryker, the visionary genius who conceived and supervised the project, had to carefully pick and choose where he sent his photographers.

In West Virginia, most attention was given to the northern and southern coalfields and the homestead communities the New Deal established in Arthurdale, Eleanor and Tygart Valley, while other photographs were taken in communities both large (such as Charleston) and small (such as Richwood).

The two-headed mission of the FSA photo project was to show the needs resulting from the Depression and to document the success of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs designed to address those needs.

Many of the photographs in the first category carry an undeniable emotional wallop. The book's cover reproduces a photograph of a little girl struggling to carry a heavy can of kerosene down a dirt road past the company houses in the coal camp where she lives. Looking at the photograph you can't help but want to take her by the hand and help her with her task. Another photo shows two dirty children in the ramshackle bedroom of their home in Charleston. What, one wonders, was in store for them when they grew older?

In contrast, it's easy to admire the artistry of Shahn's photo of a vacuum cleaner factory at Arthurdale, but it doesn't stir one's emotions like the images in the first category.

From the outset, the FSA photo project had plenty of critics. Republicans in Congress denounced it as little more than taxpayer-paid propaganda on behalf of FDR and his administration. Within West Virginia, the project also drew fire from those who worried about the image some of the photographs projected. Gov. Homer Holt singled out a photograph of a miner taking a washtub bath. The photo, Holt complained, might make some people think there were no bathtubs in West Virginia.

In the face of such criticism, it seems remarkable that Stryker was able to keep the FSA project afloat for so long. But then, Stryker was a remarkable man. A Colorado native and World War I veteran, he did postgraduate work under economist Rexford Tugwell at Columbia University, and when Tugwell went to Washington as part of the New Deal administration, he took Stryker with him.

At Columbia, Stryker had hit on the idea of using photographs to enliven an economics textbook, so it's perhaps not surprising that when he was placed in charge of the FSA's Historical Section he immediately starting hiring photographers and handing them assignments.

"In retrospect," writes Rivard, "it is hard to imagine anyone else getting the kind of results that Stryker was able to accomplish through his staff."

But, in the final analysis, surely Stryker's greatest accomplishment came not during his day-to-day efforts at the FSA but during its final days before shutting down, when he arranged that its thousands of negatives be turned over to the Library of Congress. Today, decades after they were taken, the FSA photographs have been carefully preserved and cataloged by the Library of Congress, which has made hundreds of them available online.

In compiling her West Virginia collection, Rivard has included the Library of Congress negative file numbers so that interested readers may access the original image through the library's website, www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/.

James E. Casto, a retired Huntington newspaper editor, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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