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Panoramic Photos, Coal, and History

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
January 28th, 2016

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.

A lot of archives have what we call “hidden collections”—great materials that aren’t findable online or just aren’t described well.  At the WVRHC, one of our hidden collections is our panoramic photos collection.  The photos are large; the longest is 64 inches long—roughly the height of the average American woman!  I am working on describing and rehousing these photos so that we can put their descriptions online in our Guide to Archives & Manuscripts (check it out at A&M 4167).  In this post, I highlight one of the photographers and share some of his work.

Group of Miners with shadow of Photographer Ribble, Eccles, WV, 1956

We don’t have any photos of Ribble, but we do believe one of these shadows is him, standing next to his camera with his assistant. 

Photographer Rufus E. ‘‘Red’’ Ribble (May 14, 1878-December 27, 1967) was born in Blacksburg, Virginia, moved to West Virginia around 1919, and travelled through Fayette, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Nicholas, Raleigh, Wyoming and other southern counties to capture large groups—coal miners, family reunions, clubs, and more—until his retirement in the late 1950s.  Other than that, not much is known about his life, but he left quite a legacy in his work.

Looking at the photos, I wondered how Ribble captured such a large panorama with the technology available at the time.  I found great information in the resources listed at the bottom of this post.  Ribble used a Cirkut camera, which revolves on a geared tripod while exposing the film through a small slit, allowing it to take a continuous photograph that can capture a full 360-degree view (though Ribble usually stopped at 220-degrees).  The photos themselves were made by contact printing the full-size negative, so the image is sharp and clear, with none of the distortion you might get from enlarging a small negative.

Cirkut Camera

“Cirkut” by Jason Selinger – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

What can Ribble’s photos show us?  I took pictures of sections of some of my favorite photos, so I could share with you some of the rich material they contain.

Group of miners on McAlpin night force

Many of the photos are full of details about the mining workforce:  this photo of the McAlpin night force in 1955 shows the racial makeup of the crew, the equipment and clothes they wore, whose clothes were clean and whose weren’t (do white shirts indicate management, or new hires?).

Miners practicing first aid on a field in Mount Hope

This undated photo shows a miners’ safety contest or first aid training in the stadium of Mount Hope, WV.  We can see some of the equipment they use, spectators in the stands, even an advertisement on an old car.

Panoramic view of the interior of Richmond Cleaners and Laundry, Beckley, WV

A few of Ribble’s photos show store interiors.  This one gives us a unique look at the inside of Richmond Cleaners and Laundry, Beckley, WV, ca. 1940s-1950s.  (The photo is 10 inches by 47 inches, and is much more interesting to look at in person.)

Unidentified town with houses and playground equipment

Ribble also photographed towns—this town is unidentified, but we can see playground equipment and many houses with the same size plot and style of house.

Due to the size of the photos, the WVRHC does not have plans to digitize them at this time, but you can ask to view the collection when you visit the WVRHC in person.  I will add the A&M collection description to this blog post once it is available online. You can see the collection description now in our Guide to A&M Collections under A&M 4167.



Bragg, Melody “Red Ribble.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 08 December 2015. Web. 27 January 2016.

Crabtree, Mark.  “Red Ribble, Coalfield Photographer.” 05 February 2004. Web. 26 January 2016.  (Article also available in Goldenseal Magazine, January-March 1981 issue).

Porterfield, Mannix. “Family produces coalfield panoramic photo book.” Register-Herald [Beckley, WV] 10 Dec. 2005.

Ribble, Rufus, George A. Bragg, Morgan G. Bragg, and Melody Bragg. West Virginia Coalfield Photography 1900-2005: Panoramic Photography. Beaver, WV: GEM Publications, 2005. Print. (“The photo collection within this book represents the most complete panoramic record ever produced of coal miners and coal camps.”)

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