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July 30, 2014

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Photographs by William ‘W.R.’ Trivett taken in Appalachia in the first half of the 20th century will be on display at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum now through the end of April. PHOTO BY W.R. TRIVETT

Originally published: 2013-03-08 08:56:59
Last modified: 2013-03-08 08:56:59


Professional photographers who captured the lives of Appalachian “mountaineers” of the early 20th century were notorious for making sure all of the trappings of hillbilly life were in the shot.

The moonshine jug, corncob pipe and other props were used in their photos to help sell them as souvenirs.

Photographer William “W.R.” Trivett, however, wasn’t interested in perpetuating such stereotypes. Perhaps, it was because he was a mountaineer himself.

The Blowing Rock Art and History Museum is presenting the new exhibit “W.R. Trivett: Imaging the Mountains” from now through the end of April. The exhibit is in BRAHM’s Upstairs Gallery, and is presented in conjunction with a project by Appalachian State University’s Art Department and its curator studies program.

For the past few weeks, ASU students from the program have been arranging Trivett photographs, antique photography equipment and other items into a cohesive exhibit at BRAHM. The equipment is on loan from a local collector.

Trivett (1884-1966) was born into a farming family in Watauga County. A self-taught photographer, he was one of the earliest professionals to photograph the people of Watauga and Avery counties in a realistic manner.
Trivett left behind more than 400 glass plate negatives, dating from between 1907 and the late 1940s. Many of the negatives depict life as it was for the people living in the Beech Mountain community of Avery County.

Trivett also left behind a treasure trove of personal papers, detailing his life, work and photography subjects.

Those papers and photographs were the basis for Ralph E. Lentz’s book “W.R. Trivett, Appalachian Pictureman: Photographs of a Bygone Time,” published by McFarland Press in 2000. Lentz, a Blowing Rock resident, teaches history at Appalachian State University, Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute and Lees-McRae College.

“The life and photographs of W.R. Trivett present an excellent opportunity to carefully examine and evaluate the work of the Appalachian picturemen,” a BRAHM spokesperson said.

“By answering the questions as to why and how Trivett made his pictures, and by placing his work within the context of the times in which they were made, the value of his and other picturemen’s often neglected or trivialized images reveals itself. And what is found within the photographs of W.R. Trivett is a quiet revelation about life in Appalachia.

“Between the late 1890s and the 1940s, self-taught yet highly competent photographers worked on the fringe of the photographic world. Lacking the economic and educational resources of their counterparts in the towns and cities of Appalachia, the picturemen served as liaisons to rural patrons who could not afford either the time or the money to have their picture taken by a professional studio photographer. Thus, W.R. Trivett and other Appalachian picturemen recorded images of people and places that otherwise might have remained invisible in the pages of history.

“Trivett began in the early 1900s, first by developing what were called ‘sun pictures.’ In July 1907, he ordered what was probably his first camera from the Conley Camera Company. From what has survived of Trivett’s collection, it appears that he ordered cameras and supplies through mail order catalogs and learned the craft through reading pamphlets on photography.

“By 1909, he had his own business cards and stamp set to mark the back of his photos. He moved to Flat Springs in 1926 and built his own ‘picture house’ (darkroom) behind the house.

“He mainly did portraits, individuals, families, couples, and the remaining photographs in the collection are of special occasions, such as weddings, baptisms, singings and revivals, and community gatherings, even some WPA (Works Progress Administration) workers during the Depression.

“Lentz inherited Trivett’s negatives through his grandmother. During 1996 and 1997, a friend made original prints from all of Trivett’s surviving negatives.”

The ASU art students also had access to and are using some artifacts saved by Trivett’s wife, Mertie Weaver Trivett, such as ledgers, paycheck stubs, letters and business cards for the new exhibit.

BRAHM is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. The museum is closed on Sunday and Monday.  Admission to BRAHM is $8 for adults and $5 for children 5 and older, students and military personnel. Group rates are available.  For more information, call BRAHM at (828) 295-9099, or visit

For more information and stories, see The Blowing Rocket.

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