Luther D. Baker’s recently published “The Cranberry Wilderness Story” (Little Beechy Creations; Canvas, WV; 368 pages) accomplishes two things. First, it introduces the impressive WV timber industry documentary photography of John Finley Taylor (1887-1976). Second, the book places Taylor’s body of work in a broader historical context — that of how the parcel of land we know today as the Cranberry Wilderness has been shaped over the millennia, first by nature and then by man.
It’s almost a certainty you’ve never heard of Finley Taylor (he dropped the use of ‘John’). Taylor ran a commercial portrait photography studio in downtown Richwood, WV from 1912 until he retired in 1949. In addition, he regularly ventured out with his camera to the operations of the Cherry River Boom & Lumber Company, whose lumbering activities took place 10 miles outside of town. “Perhaps business was slow on Main Street,” notes Baker. “The area was timbered between 1926-1933, and the Depression fell right in the middle of this period. We know he sold copies of his pictures to many of his subjects.”
Indeed, a great many of the Cherry River portraits reproduced in “Cranberry” employ a classic studio approach: the subjects are carefully centered in the frame, looking straight at the photographer, usually surrounded by their tools of the trade. Taylor faced his subjects with a 5×7 field camera waist high on a tripod, using a standard lens, and his lighting is straightforward mid-day light, neither high-key nor low-key. There’s nothing tricky or gimmicky about his portraits. Their assured style feels akin to the portraits of German photographer August Sander, who worked in the same era.
Finley Taylor left behind more than 400 images of almost every aspect of timber harvesting, not only the lumbermen portraits he hoped to sell. “It seems apparent that he was keenly interested in the logging operations,” Baker points out, “because many of the images were probably not photographs he could sell very readily.”
And thank goodness for that keen interest! Finley Taylor’s photographs are invaluable to historians of WV’s timber industry for their unmatched depth. His status as a longstanding local gained him access to areas and activities that ‘outsider photographers’ would never have been privy to. Lewis Hines and Dorothea Lange may be household names today in documentary photography from that era, but when it comes to WV timbering, Finley Taylor got the day-to-day visual goods close-up from the inside.
In today’s era of discreet pocket digital cameras and their push button controls, it’s hard for us to envision just how much of a physical intrusion the clunky 5×7 camera, with its tripod and head cloth, really was during the 1920s and 1930s. The mere presence of a photographer and his demanding equipment changed how people behaved.
Finley Taylor overcame this drawback brilliantly: his familiar presence in the camps over many years is reflected both in the faces and the body stances of his subjects. He regularly stayed at several of the loggers’ homes as a guest. And so his subjects relaxed around him. They dropped that frozen camera face look. They gaze calmly into the camera. They stand or sit quite comfortably for him.
Taylor’s photographic efforts were by no means all work and no play. “Cranberry” shows us a teamster standing atop a fence and leaning w-a-y out, Charlie Chaplin style, to reach the neck of his horse. There’s a shot of a group of 4 or 5 people making goofy faces and pointing guns at each other in mock feud pose. And did you notice the cap on the foot of the fellow on the right in the photo just above? Taylor managed to find little moments of joy and silliness that instantly have the power to delight us.
Enter Luther Baker. “In the late 1970s and early 1980s I was about the only professional photographer working in Nicholas County. Finley Taylor passed away in 1976, and a few months after his passing, his daughter approached me about purchasing what remained of the contents of his studio.”
Luckily for us, Baker went ahead and made the purchase. He tells his readers that there were very few incorrectly exposed images in the many storage boxes. Taylor was either a careful craftsman to begin with, or he weeded things out as he went along.
Luther Baker has taken great care in reproducing Taylor’s negatives. In “Cranberry” they are presented in straight B&W (Baker explains that Taylor’s original prints were often gold toned or full color), using a fine 300 dots-per-inch halftone screen (magazines by comparison use a coarser 133 dots-per-inch screen). The hardcover book is beautifully printed in oversized 9×12 horizontal format, most often showing 1 image per page for greatest impact and clarity of detail.
The one shortcoming of the “Cranberry” presentation of Finley Taylor photographs is the lack of subject identification, for which Baker readily apologizes. “One of my life’s regrets is not to have interviewed [more] people before they passed away,” he says. “Given the length of time that elapsed from the time I obtained Finley Taylor’s negatives from his daughter, I never thought I would be fortunate enough to interview individuals who lived among the hundreds of people depicted in these pages.”
The 6 or 8 oral histories that Baker has included do help to bring the pictures to life. “See this fellow with the peg leg?” says Anna Mary Aiken Woods, whose family resided in a Cherry River logging camp called Dogway. “He is my father, Jimmy Aiken. He lost his leg when he tried to jump from one flatcar to another and he fell onto the track. He traveled to a rehabilitation hospital out of state and refused to return until he was walking on his new peg leg.”
About 2/3 of the pages of “Cranberry” consist of Finley Taylor photographs. Luther Baker could easily have stopped with that and still had a compelling product. Instead, he has sought to place Taylor’s photographs in a sweeping timeline, and to make the land itself the central subject. You can almost hear Baker chuckling about this editorial choice as he tells his readers “I once worked under a county school superintendent who used to say to people, ‘You cannot ask Luther the time without him giving you a detailed account of how to first make a watch’.”
And so “Cranberry” begins with a discourse on geologic time and the various eras that shaped the land mass below our study area, leapfrogs quickly to Native American capsule summaries, compresses the 17th and 18th century into 4 pages, then starts to slow down as the 19th century approaches. Baker spends a good bit of time on the biography of Johnson Newlon Camden, an oil well developer, railroad owner, and land speculator whose many business dealings led directly to the formation of the Cherry River Boom & Lumber Company.
At the other end of Finley Taylor’s photographs is a section titled ‘Wilderness Reborn,’ which leads us quickly through the CCC activities in the study area, the rise of the conservation movement as a backlash to 19th century clear cutting techniques that heavily damaged America’s virgin forests, and profiles of four local conservationists relevant to our story. Finally, Baker uses a series of short newspaper clippings from the Inter-Mountain, Richwood’s News Leader, and the Beckley Register-Herald to steer the reader through the twists and turns that led to the political creation of today’s Cranberry Wilderness.
Finley Taylor’s thoroughness and unique access to his subjects resulted in a body of photographs invaluable to those interested in WV’s lumber industry. We are indebted to Luther Baker for his elegant presentation of them to the public, and for his careful accompanying research.
You can obtain a copy of “The Cranberry Wilderness Story” directly from Luther Baker for $42.35 for WV residents, $39.95 for out of state residents. Contact him at email@example.com or (304) 872-4752.