By Betty Rivard, Charleston, WV
Over 1500 documentary photographs were taken by ten professional photographers in West Virginia between 1934 and 1943. These photographs continue to be exhibited, published, and referenced in discussions to this day.
Beginning in 2006, the West Virginia Humanities Council, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources, funded a series of mini-exhibits that toured photographs from the collection to the rural communities where they were originally taken. The Council also contributed to the publication of a book, published by the West Virginia University Press, that combined photographs from the mini-exhibits with those of other parts of the state.
The mini-exhibits and the book, as well as related interviews and presentations, have helped to bring the photographs to a wider contemporary audience. Many viewers and readers have commented that the photographs resonate with their memories or family stories about the New Deal era.
These photographs, as a whole, contrast with the images of abject poverty that have been used to characterize Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular. While the standards of living of many families did not match up to more urban areas due to the lack of electricity and other public utilities, a common observation is that people did not realize that they were poor. The photographs have helped people to heal the disconnect between their own experiences and the way that their lives were later depicted.
At the same time, there is recognition that abject poverty existed during the Great Depression. One of the goals of the government project that sponsored the photographs was to point to basic needs so that people in cities would support the funds and programs that were needed to address them. Other goals were to show the successful government projects, document everyday life in rural areas and small towns, and, after the onset of World War II, also highlight life in cities and the support provided by the home front.
The photographs have been characterized as introducing Americans to America. They are credited with helping Americans to expand their perspectives beyond their local communities and develop the sense of national unity that was required to prevail in the war.
In West Virginia and across the country we are now divided in new ways that can be exacerbated by our advances in communications via social media and other means. Some of the fault lines are again between rural and urban. The New Deal photographs can continue to play a role in bringing people together across these divides.
We must go beyond our comfort zones to try to understand each other. These photographs, projects like this website, and new initiatives that are developed in this same spirit, can all help us to come together to meet the new challenges we face.