The exhibit is about both art and history. Each of the photographers was associated with one of the giants of photographic history: Walker Evans and Paul Strand. Photographs of Omar are included in historical books and exhibits. These photographs also show a slice of everyday life in Omar and the vicinity on the specific days that the photographers visited the community.
Ben Shahn (1898-1969), emigrated from Lithuania to New York with his family, who were Jewish, when he was eight years old. He always liked to draw. In high school he was an apprentice to a lexicographer who designed letters, or fonts. In college, he first studied biology and then decided to become an artist. He lived and studied art in Europe and North Africa. During his early career, he exhibited paintings and worked on wall murals in New York. His work often expressed his passion for social justice.
When Shahn first began taking photographs, using a second-hand Leica 35mm with one lens and no light meter, he was sharing a studio with Walker Evans. The camera had an attachment that allowed him to take photographs from the side while he appeared to be pointing straight ahead. By this means he was able to photograph people without them knowing they were in the picture at the time it was taken.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President in 1933, when the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. He immediately began working with the U.S. Congress to develop “New Deal” programs to assist people in obtaining food, housing, jobs, and other necessary support. Because Roosevelt wanted all Americans to understand why these programs were so essential, a project to photograph people in need across the country was undertaken to help tell the story. This work was done from 1935-1943, mostly through the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA), which was based in Washington, D.C., under the direction of Roy Stryker.
Walker Evans and Ben Shahn were two of the first photographers hired to help with this work. Shahn actually worked for a part of the project called Special Skills and also helped create posters and other graphic arts.
It was hard to make a living as an artist in those days. In a later interview, Shahn remembered:
“I thought I’d never get out of New York again. I mean the present seemed to be hopeless. . . It was a really tough time and when this thing came along and this idea that I must wander around the country a bit for three months. . . I just nearly jumped out of my skin with joy. And not only that, they were going to give me a salary too! I just couldn’t believe it.”
In October 1935 Shahn and his wife, Bernarda, started out on the first trip in a Model A Ford. Heading for West Virginia, he took photographs in Monongalia County before arriving in Logan County. The couple spent a Sunday and Monday in Omar and also visited Freeze Fork before moving on through Williamson to Kentucky and Tennessee, and then into the deep South. Shahn later recalled: “. . in the mine country, wherever you point the camera there is a picture…. He also said, “I was primarily interested in people, and people in action.”
Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) was born in Montclair, New Jersey. Her father was a doctor. When her parents divorced, she was sent to a boarding school. She later lived with her mother in Greenwich Village in New York City. She studied dance and followed her sister, a photographer, to Europe in the early 1930s. While in Europe she witnessed a rally led by Adolph Hitler and saw Jewish friends being persecuted for their religion. She acquired her first camera, a Rolleiflex, before leaving Europe. Back in the United States she taught at private schools before deciding to pursue a career as a photographer.
After working as the only female photographer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, where she had assignments for the “ladies” pages, Wolcott wanted to use her photography to do more meaningful work. Paul Strand helped her with her art and recommended her for a position with the FSA in 1938. She was the first woman working there who would be traveling alone, and Roy Stryker was very protective of her. In a letter to her he wrote:
“There is still another thing I raised with you the other day, that is the idea of your traveling in certain areas alone. I know that you have had a great deal of experience in the field, and that you are quite competent to take care of yourself, but I do have grave doubts of the advisability of sending you, for example, into certain sections of the South.”
For her first assignment, in September 1938, Wolcott took a one-month trip around West Virginia. She first spent time in Monongalia and Kanawha Counties, where she took some of the photographs that later became her most famous. Although she was assigned to concentrate on the more positive signs of recovery from the Depression, these photographs included many images of poverty.
Wolcott had studied the files and may have seen Shahn’s earlier photographs of Omar. She passed through Omar on a Monday and photographed people walking home after a day at work or school. She went on to photograph miners and their families elsewhere in the Southern coalfields before returning to Washington, D.C. During this trip she established her ability to relate to the people she met, win their confidence, and take high quality photographs that told their story.
Following his trip to the South, Ben Shahn returned to Washington, D.C. and played an important role in shaping the FSA work and its focus on people, not just the physical conditions in which they lived. He only took a few more trips for the FSA but his total output was over 6,000 photographs.
Shahn later used his FSA photographs in his paintings. One, based on photographs of Scotts Run, near Morgantown, was among the first paintings purchased by the then new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This painting was also highlighted in a PBS documentary. The first photograph of Omar in this exhibit, depicting five men sitting on a curb, was used as the basis for a painting owned by a museum in Japan.
Shahn spent the rest of his life working as an artist, teacher, and writer. Two of his paintings – one of Martin Luther King and one of Johann Sebastian Bach – were used as covers for Time Magazine in the 1960s. Shahn lectured at Harvard University and wrote the now classic book, The Shape of Content.
Shahn’s FSA photographs have appeared in many books and exhibits about his work and the FSA project. A photograph of Omar by Shahn is included in a book composed of project director Roy Stryker’s favorite photographs. As one commentator later wrote about him: “In carefully examining Shahn’s photographs in the file one is immediately struck by the fact that there are no meaningless entries . . . the photographs are simply one meaningful image after another.”
Marion Post Wolcott traveled for the FSA throughout the South and into New England and the West. When she married and began to raise a family, she set aside her career as a professional photographer, though she did undertake several photography projects after her children were grown. In the 1960s her work was rediscovered and included in exhibits and books of FSA and women’s photography. Photographs from the series of a girl and her friends in Omar and the payday scene at Stirrat are included in several of these books.
Later in life, in an interview Wolcott spoke of the FSA period:
“It was one of the few places you could go where you felt that your pictures would be used and seen and that you could be honest in your reporting. This was the beginning of the recognition and assumption of responsibility, government responsibility for the welfare of the individual, and we were the photographic end of it.”
Omar, West Virginia, is located on a tributary, Main Island Creek, that flows into the Guyandotte River, which flows into the Ohio. There is evidence of early Native American life in the area. This includes a Serpentine Mound that was reported in Logan County histories as having been located at Omar.
Omar is located in mountainous country with narrow bottom lands. During pioneer times the main transportation was by foot and horseback along paths by the waterways and through the woods. In the 1880s and 1890s distant investors bought large tracts of land for the timber. Clinton Crane, of Cincinnati, Ohio, and James Omar Cole, of Peru, Indiana, the namesake for Omar, paid $260,000 for 37,000 acres around the area where the town of Omar is located. (Cole Porter, a well-known songwriter, was the grandson of James Omar Cole.)
The Guyandotte was used to float logs down the river to the Ohio. In the early 1900s a railroad was built along the river to further open up the land and bring out the coal. This significantly increased the value of the Cole and Crane holdings. The West Virginia Coal and Coke Company built its headquarters in Omar and developed the infrastructure for the mines and their workers and families. The company operated fifteen mines in the area in 1925. Around that time Logan County produced 14.5% of the coal in West Virginia and over 3.8% of the coal for the United States as a whole.
There was not a large enough native workforce of miners in Logan County. Thus, men, many with families, came into the county from the South and from other countries. Single men, mostly from Eastern Europe, boarded at the Omar clubhouse until their families could come over to join them. In Logan County in 1930 there were 6443 [native] white miners, 2212 black miners, 968 Hungarian miners, and 1000 miners from Italy, Spain, Poland, and other countries.
The multi-storied company store in Omar was called the Junior Mercantile. It accepted scrip, which was available at the company office nearby. The store included brand name clothing, groceries, a pharmacy, and other goods. The streets of downtown Omar were landscaped with rows of trees. There was a large elementary/junior high school building for white children and another school building for black children. (The high schools were in Logan - Logan High School for the white students and Aracoma High School for the black students.) Other buildings included churches, a pool hall, a restaurant, and a large movie theater. There was also an office for the company doctor.
Housing in Omar was built and owned by the coal company for its employees. A row of large houses on the main street was used by the company managers. Several developments of smaller houses and duplexes were assigned to the miners. There were also certain streets and developments used for white collar staff.
By 1930 there was regular bus service between Omar and Logan, about ten miles to the north. There were passenger trains as well as coal trains. Automobiles had become more commonplace as roads were improved. There was also a lot of foot traffic, including traffic between the housing developments and the underground mines that were up Pine Creek.
In 1933 President Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which opened the Southern coalfields to unionization bringing all of the miners in the region into the United Mine Workers of America. Some of the advantages of the union mines were apprenticeship training programs and strong safety committees that could close down a mine due to dangerous conditions. This unionization also brought a resolution to the conflict that had reached a peak at the Battle of Blair Mountain in the early 1920s.
Life in Omar was highly structured and organized to accommodate employment in the mines. Household tasks were each done on a set day of the week, with washing on Monday, etc. Cleanliness was valued in the face of the daily challenge of dealing with cinders and coal dust from the many coal trains that passed through. Families were also affected by smoke that hung over the town from coal heaters and a slag heap near the mines; some people eventually had to move away due to the effects on their health.
Some of the managers’ children were not allowed to socialize with the children of miners. The children in the miners’ housing developments were generally free to play together despite differences in race and national origin. Omar, like all of West Virginia, had features in common with both the North and the South in the way it treated race. Segregated schools and public facilities including the movie theater, the restaurant and pool hall, were a fact of life. Unlike in the Deep South, black people in West Virginia were able to exercise their right to vote and could freely associate in groups like the Logan County NAACP, which was originally based in Omar. They also had more mobility than black people in the Deep South who had been tied into a share cropper and tenant farm system and who sometimes had to act in secret in order to move North.
People have good memories of growing up in Omar. It had the benefits of small town community life, where neighbors knew and cared about each other. One commentator noted: “At this time Omar was a beautiful place, very landscaped and clean.”
In reflecting on the photographs in this exhibit, a longtime resident noted that they point to the important role the coalfields played in West Virginia in heritage, economic development, and the mixing of the races – Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Mexican, blacks.
“In the mines it [felt like] there was no discrimination: my life depended on him and his on me. There was a brotherhood. And the kids grew up together. They didn’t know color until they went to school. After school the one question was, can you come out to play now?”
This exhibit was made possible through funds granted from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities to the Coalfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. The photographs are in the American Memory Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress and are available online at www.loc.gov. There is no charge for viewing or reproducing the photographs. Exhibit quality prints, made in the darkroom from the original negatives, are purchased from the Library of Congress Photoduplication Services.
Information for the exhibit has been generously shared by current and former residents of Omar and Logan County. Publications for research have been made available through the WVU Library, the West Virginia State Library Commission, the West Virginia Office of Archives and History, and the Kanawha Public Library. Other information has been obtained through online searches.
The current schedule for the exhibit includes the Museum in the Park at Chief Logan State Park, the Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, and the WVU Library. Additional venues may be added upon request. The photographs will eventually become part of the display at the Interpretive Center that is planned to be built off of Corridor G at Logan. CDs of the photographs and copies of the exhibit notes, citations, and a bibliography are available to schools and other interested groups and individuals.
Introductory notes | Photos 1 | Photos 2 | Photos 3 | Photos 4