For the photographers who worked for the federal government’s Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and ’40s, life was never easy. Charged with traveling around the country and documenting poverty and the New Deal policies being implemented to ameliorate it, they spent months every year on the road, staying in cheap hotels, eating bad food, spending evenings writing captions for the photographs they’d taken. During the day, they had to contend with the suspicion many people harbored toward outsiders–especially those with cameras.
The few women in the ranks had a particularly difficult time of it. They had to decide whether it was all right to wear slacks on duty, for example (in Florida it was, they found, but not in rural Tennessee). In January 1939, the photographer Marion Post Wolcott, assigned to photograph vegetable pickers in Florida, wrote to FSA director Roy Stryker. “I just wish you had been along with me for just part of a day looking for something, particularly with POCKETS,” she wrote. “Let us assume that we agree on the premise that all photographers need pockets–badly–+ that female photographers look slightly conspicuous + strange with too many film pack magazines + rolls + synchronizers stuffed in their shirt fronts, + that too many filters + what nots held between the teeth prevent one from asking many necessary questions. Now–this article of clothing, with large pockets, must also be cool, washable if possible, not too light or bright a color. Try + find it!”
Post Wolcott went on to describe in detail her difficulties in finding such a garment. (She did, eventually, in a drugstore.) For all her problems, she managed to produce an archive of documentary photographs that provide a remarkable visual record of the depression and war years. Some of her work is now featured, with that of fellow government photographer Esther Bubley, in a two-woman show at the Art Institute.
Post Wolcott spent most of her time in rural areas, mainly in the south. Her photographs stand today as a record of a vanished rural way of life. There are wagons loaded with tobacco approaching a barn near Lexington, Kentucky. There’s a one-room schoolhouse in Breathitt County, Kentucky, where some of the barefoot pupils stare at the camera while others are unaffected and casual. There are the dirty faces of a coal miner’s children in Charleston, West Virginia, posing in front of a bedroom wall papered with Post Toasties boxes.
The photographer also documented segregation. Some of her work is about the hardscrabble lives of black Mississippi cotton pickers and the seamy juke joints of rural Florida. One of her most famous photos shows a black man ascending an outdoor stairway to the “colored” entrance to a movie theater–the sort of scene that was so commonplace in the 30s and 40s that some people wondered why it was worth photographing. Now it is a piece of history, and a vindication of the lasting value of documentary photography.
The FSA photographers did exceptional work in part because Roy Stryker made sure they knew the section of the country they were documenting. Last year I spoke with Esther Bubley, who’d worked for the Office of War Information, the FSA’s successor. “You would have to learn about the part of the country you were going through,” she said. “You would have to find out what was happening, and you’d have to write long captions. It was like somebody assigning you a school project more than anything else.
“I think [Stryker] looked on his photographers as kind of his family. We would always have parties, and we would play silly games, like relatives do. It was a very nice atmosphere. You know, when I went to work for Life, everybody was jealous. [At OWI], they were all anxious to help me get a start.”
Bubley, only 22 when she began working for Stryker, took a cross-country bus trip in 1943 as part of OWI’s project to document wartime transportation. The exhibition shows that Bubley did her best work in portraits, and she had plenty of opportunities to use that skill on her trip, just as she did on a later assignment to photograph Texas oil towns. Among my favorite pictures in the exhibit are those of the inscrutable mayor and commissioners of Tomball, Texas, and the worn, Norman Rockwell-esque faces of singers in the town’s First Baptist Church. If Bubley’s photos lack the crispness of Post Wolcott’s best work, they are nonetheless evocative reminders of a time gone by.
“On Assignment: Documentary Photographs From the 1930s and 1940s by Marion Post Wolcott and Esther Bubley” will be on exhibit in the Art Institute’s photography gallery through March 11. The Art Institute, on Michigan at Adams, is open 10:30 to 4:30 Monday and Wednesday through Friday, 10:30 to 8 Tuesday, 10 to 5 Saturday, and noon to 5 Sunday. The requested donation is $5, $2.50 for students and seniors, children under six free; free Tuesday. For more information call 443-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Esther Bubley, Marion Post Wolcott.