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Behind the Lens: Paper’s chief photographer talks career

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Community institutions come in many forms. Some are buildings — a school or a church. Others are organizations, like the local Lions or Rotary clubs.
But every once in a while, an individual comes along who looms so large they are an institution all to themselves. The Dominion Post’s own Ron Rittenhouse is such a person.

“A lot more people know me than I know them,” said Rittenhouse, The Dominion Post’s chief photographer. “I just kind of nod my head.”

How it all began

In an era when the company man has long become a relic of the past, Ron has spent his entire career with the Dominion Post. For more than 50 years, he has chronicled the comings and goings of Morgantown — but by his own admission, Ron was no photographer when he was first hired.

“I wasn’t a yearbook photographer as most photographers did and then went to college and then they’re yearbook photographers. No,” he said.

He held several different jobs after high school, but none of them had anything to do with photography or news. There was a job at a body shop, a short stint training to be an electrician, and finally a job at the old Westinghouse factory just outside Fairmont.

“After going into that factory every day … I stepped back, and I said, ‘Boy what kind of a future is this in the factory?’ I see some of these people had been there all their life,” Ron said. “That’s when I met David Smith. He was a photographer, worked at WVU and taught a basics course.”

Smith invited Ron to come develop his own photos at the university’s labs, and almost instantly Ron was hooked.

“Just that fact, to know that I did it myself and the pictures that I took were on that image, and I held up that film, just fascinated me. Someway or another I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and that’s when I found out about the newspaper.”

Technical skills can be taught and learned, but there’s a certain disposition that makes someone well-suited to work in news. A certain forward nature that lets you walk up to strangers and ask questions.

To his luck, Ron had a little of that something, and it propelled him to walk into the office of The Dominion Post’s publisher in 1969 and ask for a job.
“He said ‘Do you have a resume?’ and I said, ‘Well, no.’ ” Ron said of his job interview. “He asked me, ‘Well do you have some pictures?’ And today I wouldn’t show (those pictures) to anybody. He just kind of shook his head and said, ‘Anybody who could walk in here and ask for the job taking another photographer’s place, with no more experience than you have, I’m going to give you the opportunity.’ ”

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Historical significance

And that’s not just talk in Ron’s case. During his career he’s photographed presidents and governors and has been on hand to capture countless historic events in the region.

While the recent protests bring up memories of prior protests in Morgantown, like the antiwar protests he photographed in front of the Mountainlair in 1970, the first recollection Ron goes to is older still.

“As things like this happen like it is today, George Floyd, the pandemic, it kind of pops things back in your memory that you otherwise wouldn’t think about,” he said.

One of those things was a sudden change in schools.

“At my age, I still think of Brown vs. the Board of Education. I didn’t know really much about what was going on at the time, because I was 9 years old, but I knew something was happening,” Ron said.

Born in Mannington in 1945 to one of just three Black families in town, he spent his early education attending a segregated, one-room schoolhouse. All through grade school, Ron would leave home two hours before his classes started, to get to the schoolhouse 3 miles away — even though he could see the neighborhood school from his back door.

This public school at Downs, or Rachel, W.Va., was called the colored school. It was three miles from Mannington, where the Rittenhouse family lived. The school was owned by Joann Coal Co. The right side of the building was one room for students in grades one through eight. The left side was a kitchen and meeting room for the community and coal company, Ron Rittenhouse attended this school for four years. (Click to enlarge)

“All of a sudden, I didn’t have to get up at 7 for school that took up at 9, got out at 3 but got home at 5,” Ron said. “I could come out of my back door, walk across the swinging bridge, and I was at school. So I knew something was going on when that happened.”

A court decision could force schools to open up to Black students, but it couldn’t force people to do the same. When enrolling at the integrated grade school, Ron was made to repeat the third grade.

“This particular teacher … she just figured because we came from the Black school, that we couldn’t possibly be as the good as the other school because of that fact.”

The fight against this kind of systemic racism has taken many forms through the years, most recently in the Black Lives Matter movement spurred on by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

During Ron’s first year on The Dominion Post staff, it took form in demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

1970 Tear Gas New Lair: Police use tear gas during a 1970 protest against the Vietnam War in front of the WVU Mountainlair. Students had been protesting on the campus for several days on the back of news that the war was expanding into Cambodia. The Dominion Post Chief Photographer Ron Rittenhouse took this photo from an upstairs window at Oglebay Hall. (Click to enlarge)

Students had been protesting on the campus of West Virginia University for several days on the back of news that the war was expanding into Cambodia. The killing of several students by the Ohio National Guard at another protest on the campus of Kent State University just days earlier only served to heighten tensions.

“As I get up there, I see the (police) marching in front of the Mountainlair. Over a speaker they said that if people didn’t disperse, they were going to put out … gas. First thing I thought was getting to a vantage point where I could see, so I headed for Oglebay Hall upstairs in the window.”

Ron’s photograph, reproduced here, helped capture a moment in the nation’s — and Morgantown’s — history. Just as it was all those years ago, photography continues to play a major role.

Changing methods, same commitment

“The difference in that is the technology,” Ron said. Whereas John Filo’s now iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a slain Kent State student took days to reach international prominence over the news wires in 1970, the reach and impact of the video of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police was instantaneous.

“The difference is now you can see what you couldn’t see before,” Ron said. “Anything you do, anyplace you are, there’s just no room for hiding. It’s going to be seen.”

Ron has seen significant changes in technology during his career, starting with the large format 4×5 cameras favored by the likes of Ansel Adams giving way to more compact 35mm film that dominated photography until the digital revolution.

“Our guys back in the camera room called 35mm ‘peanut cameras’ when we first started using them,” Ron said.

He has kept up with the times, seamlessly making the switch from film to digital in the 2000s, and these days sometimes going a step further.

“Lotta times now when I go places, my camera’s at home. I know I have a cell phone,” Ron said. “If something happens, I can at least get a picture and send it back whereas 10 years ago, I didn’t go anywhere without my camera.”

Don’t get him confused; Ron is a professional and still prefers his Nikon any day of the week. But regardless of the tools at hand, he always makes sure to give his pictures the attention they deserve.

“I like to spend as much time as I can on every picture that I take,” Ron said. “I like to come back here and sit down and tone the picture properly.”

Ron takes the time because he takes pride in his work. Pride derived from understanding not only the beauty of what he does, and the pleasure he derives from doing it well, but also the importance to the community.

“Being a photographer here for as many years as I’ve been here and being able to show my work to the general public who buy The Dominion Post, it’s been a great honor,” he said.

In as long a career as Ron’s, measured in decades, spanning generations and technological and societal changes to boot, it’s important to stay motivated. Even after 50 years, Ron says he’s driven by his love of the craft.

And maybe one other thing.

“I’m still waiting for that Pulitzer Prize.”

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