Jack and Irene Delano on the Farm Security Administration Historical Section photographic project, interviewed by Richard K. Doud, Rio Pedras, Puerto Rico, June 12, 1965: from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (edited excerpts from interview transcript)
"...the detail and the deeper meaning of everything American..."
JACK DELANO: [FSA Director] Roy [Stryker] gave you the feeling that he knew more about everything than you did and, above all, that knew more about America that you did, by far. And that's one of the things that I loved about Roy and one of the things I got most from him was a feeling about the United States, about America. This enthusiasm and love for the detail and the deeper meaning of everything American was something that he must have transmitted to everybody. He certainly did to me. In preparing for an assignment he not only gave us books to read, and all kinds of other things, but would talk and talk and talk in great detail about what you will find up there, and what you must look for, and there is a certain drugstore on such and such a corner which has a certain thing in the window which you must be sure to find, and so on. And he almost always would end up in saying, "But, of course, if you don't find any of these things, you do what you want to anyway." This is the way it always ended and frequently, after lengthy and detailed instructions and shooting scripts that Roy would develop, if you got up there and found that there was something else that interested you, and something else that you felt was more important and more pertinent, you just went ahead and did it; and wrote to Roy and said, "Look, Roy, it isn't like you said." This was perfectly okay with him because he wasn't imposing his ideas on you; he was trying to get you stimulated enough so that you would find out what was really there.
Malaria poster in small hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico, December 1941
[Roy Stryker] would write in longhand these long letters in which he would work out for you a complete shooting script on what you should be looking for in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania or in Aroostook County, Maine. He would write in great detail about potato-picking, and what kind of shoes do they wear, and what kind of gloves do they wear, and where do they eat and sleep, and do all sorts of other things. But this was primarily a guide for you to open your eyes and be looking for these things. He wouldn't tell you what to photograph at all, ever.
At the Vermont state fair, Rutland, September 1941
"...everything that produced this woman with her three hundred cans was important and essential..."
In the tenement district, Brockton, Massachusetts, December 1940
"...the accent and the inclination and the songs and everything having to do with it..."
Trucks outside a starch factory, Caribou, Aroostook County, Maine, October 1940
Near White Plains, Georgia, c. 1941
"I didn't place them that way but they were that way..."
At the Vermont state fair, Rutland, 'backstage' at the 'girlie' show, September 1941
"...an expression of the essence of what you are seeing."
A square with old houses in an old fishing village, Stonington, Connecticut, November 1940
"We tried not to get in people's way..."
IRENE DELANO: I think that we had tremendous respect for the people that we were visiting, and we felt that they were doing us a great favor to let us be there, really. And we were also, I think, very aware of their poverty, in many cases, and their tough circumstances and so were terribly almost oversensitive, I think to that kind of thing. We tried to be as inconspicuous and innocuous as possible in the sense that we didn't want to interfere with them, and we just realized that nothing good could happen unless they understood that we were not doing it in any kind of mocking way, and this was very difficult at times. It was difficult to get it across. I don't know, I don't think it's anything special that we did, but rather what we tried not to do. We tried not to get in people's way; we tried to make them understand that we were tremendously sympathetic with their problem.
Child of an FSA borrower, in front of their house, Puerto Rico, December 1941 or January 1942
"...times when I just felt so badly..."
I always have liked to travel around and we didn't ever seem to have... I mean we had problems like not being able to find a place at night, you know, that kind of thing, but I guess I was really too young to care about those kinds of comforts, you know. That didn't make much of an impression on me. Oh, sometimes we stayed in lousy places, and sometimes not, but I don't remember ever feeling that we were being put upon in any way in terms of our own living. As a matter of fact, I've always felt just the opposite. I felt so rich, and we were staying in hotels and motels and all these things all the time, and each night was a new experience, you know, what we were going to find. But coming back to the relations with the people that Jack was photographing, you know, it varied tremendously. We found for the most part that we did best when we were alone, that if we went, for instance, with an agent, a representative of one of the government agencies who had some dealings with the people wherever we were on one thing or another, if you had a very good person, a person who really cared about the people he was dealing with, it would be very helpful because it would be a natural way to go to visit them. If it was the kind of person that people didn't respect, or didn't like particularly, or felt uncomfortable with, then we just had a terrible time. We would give up and come back on our own. I think, possibly, it helped to have a woman along on many of these things. Particularly when we'd just stop, we'd see something and we'd just stop, and just the mother and the children would be at home. Well, it was easier, I think, to have a woman to talk to her than if Jack had had to. Then she would immediately have felt a little more uncomfortable, or wondered if he was an inspector, or one thing and another. Whereas having a woman along, I think, helped in those situations. At other times I know that I just couldn't stand it and Jack had to push me. I mean times when I just felt so badly, particularly in the South when we would be in Negro communities, and there I... The people many times didn't like it, but they just didn't know who we were and what we were trying to do, but they couldn't say no to us. I remember one time in particular we passed a little church out in the country and there was a service going on, and it just looked absolutely marvelous, you know. It was just a little tiny white church on a little hillside and we stopped and went and we could see the look of resentment in all those people, I mean the attitude, "You won't even leave us alone now." And I said, "Jack, let's get out of here. I'm not going in." And he said, "You are going in and you're going to take that flash right up to the front and you're going to do just what I tell you." Well, I'd never seen him get that way with me. I said, "You can't do it. Leave them alone, leave them alone. They don't want us here." And he gritted his teeth, you know, and said, "Take that flash up to the front and put it where I tell you. You don't like it now, but we've got to get it." And I'll never forget walking down that aisle. We had asked; they didn't answer. They didn't say we could come in, and of course they didn't say we could not come in. And I walked right up to the front of that church and shot the flash off and, you know, held it so that it would go off in one area of the church. I came out of that place just shaking, and so was Jack. But he thought that the use of the picture, I mean in that case what carried us was that we felt that the use of the pictures would warrant us acting that way in that particular circumstance. And that kind of thing did happen from time to time, but not in the majority of cases. I mean you couldn't stand to do it, you couldn't go and force yourself on people in that way...
Street corner, Brockton, Massachusetts, January 1941
"...an understanding of what the whole community was like..."
...you had to have your own opinion, you had to have an understanding of what the whole community was like, the whole social structure...
Near the waterfront, New Bedford, Massachusetts, January 1941
"...very much like concentration camps."
JACK DELANO: ...this was part of Roy's idea, that somebody ought to cover the migrant agricultural worker trail from Florida to Aroostook County, Maine, right up the Coast. Which is what we did. We started in southern Georgia and covered the migrant workers' turpentine camps, tomato-picking, all kinds of other vegetable crops; we kept on going up the trail of the migrant workers from state to state, through Delaware -- where there was a lot of truck farming going on and they were bringing agricultural workers from the South, living in barracks-type buildings, barbed wire fences around. They looked very much like concentration camps.
Land and utility municipal housing project, Ponce, Puerto Rico, December 1941
"...not all Americans are alike."
IRENE DELANO: ...one thing we were talking about before is about poor people being generally warm human people, and I think we found that to be true. That was a thing that unified people everywhere. And also to me it was a tremendous revelation of the tremendous variety of nationalities and the cultures within cultures -- the culture of a migratory worker as against someone from a New England town. All that kind of thing was completely new to me and just absolutely fascinating -- to see how much the environment of a particular community affected the kind of people who lived in it, that not all Americans are alike.
Farm in the vicinity of Wallagrass, Aroostook County, Maine, October 1940
"...it just seemed so terribly rich to me..."
...going back to the States in recent years now I just find it so wealthy; I find the United States so rich. For instance, in New England -- last summer I went all the way up to Vermont and through Massachusetts and northern New York State, and everywhere it just seemed so terribly rich to me, after living here, you know. In the years when we were traveling so intensively for Farm Security in New England it didn't seem to me that that was true. Of course, it wasn't true then.
Landscape on the Jackson farm, vicinity of White Plains, June 1941
"... in every phase of the way our people lived..."
JACK DELANO: Roy's outlook on the use of the photographs... he didn't have any specific plans about how these pictures ought to be pushed and used and made available, but in the back of his mind was the idea that somebody was going to do something with these things, and therefore we ought to have this, and we ought to have this, and we've got to have this, and we've got to have this. For instance, he would even talk about pictures of privies; we've got to have pictures of all kinds of privies -- two-story privies, one-story privies, brick ones, big ones, all kinds. Well, this attitude is symbolic of the kind of thing he was thinking about in every phase of the way our people lived, the kind of buttons -- we've got to have pictures of all the kinds of shoes, every imaginable kind of tool that people use in their work, every imaginable kind of clothes that people wear in the various parts of our country.
Grain elevators near Amarillo, Texas, March 1943
"...a search for the heart of the American people."
I think the great thing about the Farm Security photographs, regardless of the artistic merit of any individual photograph, is that they were all being done in a search for the heart of the American people. This is what we were skirting all the time and feeling the pulse of the nation through its people.
Sideshow at the Vermont state fair, Rutland, September 1941
There was a difference between what FSA was doing and photojournalism. We were not photojournalists in the sense that we were producing something that was going to appear in a newspaper or in a magazine. We were documentary photographers, which is quite different. It means that we were providing material for somebody to use in all kinds of ways that they might want to, or need to use them. Also, I can't remember too well the kind of photography that was being done in magazines at that time. But I do remember that within a short time after the Farm Security photography started to be used, its influence on the magazines was very fast. Pretty soon the influence of Farm Security's kind of photography was being felt in the newspapers and in the magazines.
Commuters who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Massachusetts, January 1941
...we weren't working for posterity and we didn't have this in mind, although we thought that what we were doing was going to help some people somewhere for a long time to come. I think there was another thing which was not as specific which we felt we were doing and which we hoped would be reflected in our photographs, and that is that I think we all had a respect for human beings and we were hoping that in our pictures we were saying something decent about the dignity of mankind, the dignity of human beings, and it didn't matter who they were. And, although Congressmen and newspapers might get riled up about dirty little children with bare feet, and so on, we felt that when we looked at the kids, we felt that they were wonderful human beings and that no matter who it was, this was a human being of great dignity and this we hoped would be reflected in all the pictures we did. And of course, people were the basic element in everything that we were doing.
Federal housing project on the outskirts of the town of Yauco, Puerto Rico, January 1942