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Saturday, 28 April 2012

John Vachon: Like driving from a sunny day into the middle of night (Sunray, Texas, November 1942)


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Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas




This afternoon I worked in a carbon black plant.  Do you know what a carbon black plant is?  It's where they burn natural gas with insufficient oxygen and make carbon which is powdery black stuff in big bags worth 3 cents a pound, used in making tires, paints, & numerous other places.  

The [Texas] panhandle is the seat of the carbon black industry, and on any given day in any given spot you can look all around you and in 6 or 7 corners 40 miles away, no fooling, you see little black places above the horizon. These are the C.B. plants. Then as you get nearer, naturally, the little black place gets bigger and bigger. From 5 or 10 miles it's a huge black cloud out there ahead of you. Then you drive right up to it and it's just exactly like driving from a sunny day into the middle of night.  

They make wonderful backgrounds for pictures for quite some distance, and look exactly like dust storms I've seen pictures of, and I'll bet that's just what they were mistaken for by some dumb FSA photographers I could mention. 

The one I worked in today had 300 what they call hot houses.  Each hot house has several hundred gas jets burning. I went in one that was off, then they turned it on for me and I got a picture before it got very hot and got out. It's a beautiful weird sight inside.  High mass.

Anyway, in working there, I got dirtier, that is blacker, than I have ever been in my life. Really black all over. Right through the clothes it goes. I washed carefully my face and hands, but I'm leaving the rest for a while, it's really kind of beautiful. It gets very shiny when you rub it.  

About the best pictures I got this year, I think, will prove to be the portraits of some of the black faced workers there. I got so excited about these guys that I shot up all the film I had with me, and didn't get pix of the buildings, and various operations.  So I'll have to go back again.  And I'll sure make some more of those portraits. 


John Vachon (1914-1975), letter to his wife Penny, 11 November 1942, from John Vachon’s America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II: John Vachon, ed. Miles Orvell, 2003










Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas
 
Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Workers at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Sacking carbon black in plant, Sunray, Texas; carbon black is worth 3 1/2 cents a pound

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Worker at carbon black plant with cream spread on his face to protect it from black dust, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas
 
Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Employee at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Workers at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Foreman of carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas


Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Carbon black plant worker getting a drink of water, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Turning on the gas in carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Carbon black plant workers washing up at the end of the day, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Carbon black plant worker taking a shower at the end of the day, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Separator tanks through which natural gas from the Panhandle fields enters the carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas: gas is burned in 350 of these long low buildings called "doghouses"

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas: gas is burned in 350 of these long low buildings called "doghouses"

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Drying at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas
 
Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Bags of carbon black at plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Bags of carbon black at plant, Sunray, Texas

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 
Well on the pump, vicinity of Sunray, Texas: photo by John Vachon, November 1942



(Carbon black is a form of amorphous carbon produced by the incomplete combustion of heavy petroleum products such as FCC tar, coal tar, ethylene cracking tar & c. It is employed as a pigment and reinforcement in rubber and plastic products, most commonly as a pigment and reinforcing phase in automobile tires. In tire production it is used to conduct heat away from the tread and belt area of the tire, thus reducing thermal damage and increasing tire life. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined carbon black to be possibly carcinogenic to humans. Short-term exposure causes mechanical irritation to the human upper respiratory tract, producing local discomfort.)

Carbon black, aka Acetylene black, Channel black, Furnace black, Lamp black, Thermal black. TWA 3.5 mg/m3 Ca TWA 0.1 mg PAHs/m3 [Carbon black in presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)]. Black, odorless solid, insoluble. Combustible solid that may contain flammable hydrocarbons. Incompatibilities & reactivities: strong oxidizers such as chlorates, bromates & nitrates. Exposure routes: inhalation, skin and/or eye contact. Symptoms: cough; irritation eyes; [in presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: potential occupational carcinogen]. Target organs: respiratory system, eyes. Cancer site: [lymphatic cancer (in presence of PAHs)]. Recommendations: prevent eye contact; wash skin daily.

from Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)


Photos by John Vachon, Sunray, Texas, November 1942 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

17 comments:

ACravan said...

Knowing the initial color image so well (and always being overcome by it), seeing the other images in series (and reading Vachon's terrific letter) comes as a surprise and a revelation about Vachon's work, the subject he is photographing (and its broader implications, obviously), and BTP's nature and its potential as a form of art history, art criticism and art-making. The latter subject is one I used to spend a lot of time thinking about when I was in graduate school until I was overcome by my own confusion and underwhelmed by some of the efforts in this area made in the name of Conceptual Art. But this is really something else. What you've presented augments and deepens the experience of the "headline" image without diminishing its impact or subjecting the viewer to something tedious and prompting either the response "I know that already; I saw the first picture," or "I really have no interest in knowing what you're telling me." I mean, "John Vachon: Like driving from a sunny day into the middle of the night (Sunray, Texas, November 1942)" really works. Curtis

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Tom,

"portraits of some of the black faced workers there"

"Symptoms: cough; irritation eyes; [in presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: potential occupational carcinogen]. Target organs: respiratory system, eyes."

As Curtis says, having seen the first picture (still so shocking) and seeing the other pictures as a series -- nightmare in Sunray, Texas, 1942 (wonder what it looks like now).

4.28

first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, song sparrow calling in field
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

have the word in such a way,
sometimes speaking of

it draws back, subject also
determined, around it

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
cloudless blue sky to the left of point

TC said...

These US Chemical Safety Board reports from a notable incident five years ago suggest the carbon hot zone of Sunray has grown like Topsy since John Vachon's day -- if that is Topsy were a sci-fi organism programmed to grow invertedly downward toward the infernal regions.

2007 McKee Refinery Fire, Sunray, Texas

2007 McKee Refinery Fire, Sunray, Texas

TC said...

I love John Vachon's work. Had he been less self-deprecating and private by nature, perhaps he'd be known now as the great American artist he was. But that letter to his wife -- a remarkable innocence, seen in retrospect.

Hazen said...

The things we make. The sheer volume of it all. Amazing. Parts of the puzzle, the greater puzzle being us. How nice that we take care to warn ourselves about the hazards and symptoms, the target organs, the “mechanical irritation to the human upper respiratory tract.” (I hear that one). Yet we scarcely question our need to grind up the planet. Vaschon’s photos are a true study in contrast. I especially like the Nosferatu-like faces and the composition in 11450, the “doghouses”. You continue to edify, Tom. Many thanks. Oh, seeing as this stuff is used in tires, be extra careful around cars and streets today. May the Ford be with you.

Nin Andrews said...

This is like a little piece of hell, for sure. It seems that in search for our own comforts, we have committed so many crimes against our fellow beings--human and otherwise.
I've never seen these photos. I wondering what it's like today.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Pure hell on earth. High mass, indeed - Moloch mass.

Bless Vachon in that naiveté you mention, Tom. Incredible work, one can see the results of his artistic enthusiasm, why he was so excited.

The allure of pure evil for the innocent ...

TC said...

Carbon black has many uses to mankind, as the chemical company ads used to say about their products.

Carbon black particles are employed in some radar absorbent materials (stealth technology).

And carbon black is used in photocopier and laser printer toner.

Little bits of it are always circulating freely on the winds somewhere in this great land of ours.

While other little bits are even now perhaps just beginning a fantastic voyage into your or my lymphatic system.

So let's hear it again for the Prince of Darkness! Always at work to Keep America Great!

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Nothing but admiration for Vachon's work here and for ".....the black faced workers" who worked in this corner of hell day in, day out.

Jonathan Chant said...

Humbling and informative. Helps to put my day into perspective...

Thanks Tom, great post.

u.v.ray. said...

That letter of Vachon's - such great writing in itself.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Can anything possibly be worse than being in a war? Yes.

TC said...

Well, of course that Vachon letter is the heart of the matter here... just as the face of the Carbon Black Man is the soul.

The experience of the proximity of the underworld (or underworlds) always arrests the attention, and this moment of arrest is always humbling -- the darkness surrounds us, what can we do against it.

dalriada9 said...

I couldn't help feeling that the letter missed the point ... that one man's aesthetic experience is another one's ruined life

There were generations of miners in my own family until my grandparents generation found a way out of that life

Human's are so resilient but this breaks my heart to see how expendable and irrelevant some are regarded

The older i get the more pained i am by selfish disregard for others well being particularly where another person or organisation profits at their expense

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Tom,
Is it o.k. if I use your quote above for the book on Virginia Brautigan Aste? Poetic.

TC said...

Dal, loud and clear on all points.

Susan, sure, that's fine.

Robb said...

Amazing.