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Revelation in the Mountains
West Virginia FSA Photographs

By Betty Rivard

FSA
Smoke and dust fill the air at Freeze Fork in 1935. Photograph by Ben Shahn.

Seventy-five years ago this October, the first of two urban bohemian intellectual photographers traveled through West Virginiaís southern coalfields to produce honest, candid, and insightful photographs of the region. Unlike later photographers who came with assignments to look for images to fit a particular storyline, these two photographers were each open to learning from the people and communities they met.

The two photographers were Ben Shahn (1898-1969), who visited in October of 1935, and Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990), who followed partly in his footsteps nearly three years later, in September 1938. Both Shahn and Post Wolcott had spent some time in Europe, where they witnessed Hitlerís early rise to power. They were committed to social justice and wanted to do their part for President Rooseveltís New Deal initiatives. They each had a deep respect for the humanity and dignity of all Americans, regardless of their circumstances.

The trips were sponsored by various organizations within the federal government, including the Resettlement Administration (RA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and the Office of War Information (OWI). Their work was collected by Roy Stryker, who directed what is generally referred to as the FSA project. The purpose of this project, which ran from the summer of 1935 into 1943, was threefold: a) to document the conditions of people and communities who were suffering due to the Great Depression, b) to reveal the successes of the government programs designed to help them, and c) to preserve the details of everyday life in small towns and rural areas across the country.

At least 10 photographers came to West Virginia and produced more than 1,500 photographs. Photographs from all of the states were offered to government agencies and local and national magazines, newspapers, and books. At the end of the project, they were archived by the Library of Congress, where they can now be found online at www.loc.gov.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.