Red Ribble

Coalfield Photographer

by Mark Crabtree

from Goldenseal Magazine, January-March, 1981

A small shed near Mount Hope holds an exceptional record of the southern West Virginia coalfields. In it are the stored negatives representing the life's work of Rufus E. "Red" Ribble, a remarkable photographer. Ribble was born May 14,1878, near Blacksburg, Virginia, but by 1920 had moved to the Mount Hope area to begin his career as coalfield photographer.

After his death in 1976, Ribble's negatives were bought by another Fayette County photographer. That photographer has allowed me to make the prints produced here.

The uniqueness of Ribble's work is in the unusual format he chose to use, and the use he put it to. Most of his photographs are long (8" by 48") panoramic views, made with a novel rotating camera. This instrument, known as a Cirkut camera, became available shortly after the turn of the century. Because of its ability to portray large numbers of people with excellent clarity, the Cirkut camera was most commonly used for group photographs.

Indeed, the bulk of Ribble's work was group shots, and such bread-and-butter photography was his primary source of income. His subjects, however, are of more historic interest than the convention or school groups usually posed in front of such cameras. Ribble photographed the work forces of many mines throughout Fayette, Raleigh, and Wyoming counties over a period of nearly forty years. The best of these photographs serve as powerful portraits of the men who worked southern West Virginia's mines.

But Red Ribble left us another group of photographs, even more captivating than his shots of miners. These are panoramic scenes of the coal towns, mines, and landscapes of southern West Virginia. When he went to a mine to photograph the work force, he often made a view of the town, the tipple, and in a few instances even an interior of the company store. In some cases, Ribble photographed the same place at several different tims, effectively documenting the changes that occurred over the years.

Many of the places Ribble photographed have changed surprisingly little, while others are just memories now. The Raleigh County town of Lillybrook is one example. Ribble's photograph (not printed here, since no good negative is available) shows Lillybrook to have been a busy mining community in the 1920's. Now there is one house left standing, and the recent addition of a trailer.

Ribble's massive Cirkut camera rotated on a geared tripod while making an exposure. As the camera turned, the film - also moving, from one roller to another - passed by a slit, allowing light from the lens to reach it. The result was a continuous picture taking ina view up to 360°, or a full circle.

Although technically undistorted, a complete circular view from the camera is so disorienting to the human eye that it conveys little of the actual character of the subject. Since the camera made a full rotation, stopping and starting at the same point, that point appears at both ends of the photograph. The same tree, for example, might appear at both the extreme left and the extreme right.

For this reason, Ribble usually preferred a less sweeping view, and his photographs average about 220°. In his pictures of the coal camps, the image on paper is very similar to what a person would have seen from the same place the camera was.

No photograph offers a perfect record of the scene before the camera, but these highly detailed panoramas give both a wealth of information and a feeling of what an area was like.

During the forty years that he worked, Red Ribble made thousands of prints. Photographs that large are tedious to process even with modern facilities, and he had only the most rudimentary darkroom set-up. Mount Hope photographer Fred Frisk remembers seeing Ribble at work. "He had teh daggondest-looking darkroom you ever saw. Down in that basement he had a trough where he developed his pictures. I saw him working there once. He'd lean over that trough working on a picture with tobacco juice running out the corners of his mouth."

The technical flaws in a number of his photographs attest to the crudeness of Ribble's darkroom facilities. Yet he was able to produce a great many near-perfect negatives and prints over the years. Ribble had several assistants during his long career, but seems to have done all his own printing.

The Reverend Mike Megimose of Beckley worked with Ribble about thirty years ago, keeping his books and helping set up groups for his camera. Megimose recalls that Ribble sold prints of his group photographs to about 80% of the men in the pictures. Considering his hundreds of photographs, often with dozens of miners in each, Ribble must have spent many hours in his basement darkroom.

His photographs still hang on the walls of homes and businesses throughout the sother counties, but few people know anything about Ribble himself. He had a studio for a while about Ernie Mann's barber shop in Mount Hope. Mann and most others who remember the photographer describe Red as a beer drinker, though not as a drunkard. In his later years, Ribble would "get together with some old boys and shoot some poole," according to Mann. But Ribble seems to have not made many close friends in Fayette County pool halls, nor in other places he may have frequented.

It is ironic that a man who spent his life documenting the world around him has left so little information about himself. Ribble made photographs of thousands of other West Virginians, but I have been unable to find even a single picture of him. The best we have is a suncast shadow, in a 1956 Eccles photograph, of Ribble, a shorter companion, and the trusty Cirkut camera.

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2004 Mark Crabtree

This page last updated 2/5/04.