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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Scale: John Vachon


Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Seed and feed store, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1942

Middle America in the time just before and on into the early years of the War: this is the world into which I was born, in which I spent my childhood. In memory, it remains familiar to me, and has a scale I am able to recognize.

I say that world remains familiar to me in memory. But memory is a notoriously fleeting faculty, requiring, latterly, a bit of prompting. The photos here work for me as prompts. They take me back to that gone world, and perhaps even help to create the memories.

The photographer John Vachon (1914-1975) left his native Minnesota in 1936 to attend college in Washington, D.C., but within a year had dropped out of school and gone to work for the Farm Security Administration. At the time FSA director Roy Stryker was assembling a crew of the finest photographers in the country, their mission to document the lives of common working people and rural poor around a Depression-stricken America. Vachon, with no prior training in photography, began at FSA as a messenger, later became a filing clerk and fell into taking pictures out of a curiosity bred of proximity.

"John came [to Washington] to go to Catholic University," Stryker recalled in a 1963 Smithsonian oral history interview. "Got into some trouble down there because he was curious about the world about him and didn't attend classes. Finally wound up as a messenger in our place. I needed a librarian -- John was out doing filing and messenger work, and I asked him if he'd like to take it. And he took it over and became very successful at it."

Encouraged by one of most famous of the FSA photographers, Ben Shahn, Vachon borrowed a Leica and on weekends began snapping shots around the Potomac River valley. "I came back from vacation once -- I'[d] never had an assistant down there, but I came back and John had taken to loading one of our cameras," Stryker remembered. "He'd gone off on a walking tour and came back with some surprisingly good pictures. Later on it became apparent that John should quit the filing and become a photographer, and he turned [out] to be a superbly good one. He's what I have said many times is the only 'congenital photographer' that I ever realized we had."

With the loan of equipment from Stryker and under the tutelage of FSA photographers Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans, Vachon took on his first solo traveling assignments for the agency in the fall of 1937 in Nebraska.

In a 1973 interview Vachon looked back on this period as the time of his true birth in the art he would practice for the FSA until its dissolution in 1943 and later as a photojournalist at Life and Look (where he would work for for 25 years, until its demise in 1971). He had been sent to work in Omaha, but given no list of specific subjects. He was on his own.

I spent a cold November week in Omaha and walked a hundred miles. Was it Kearney Street where unemployed men sat all day on the steps of cheap hotels? A tattoo parlor, and the city mission with its soup kitchen. Men hanging around the stockyards. One morning I photographed a grain elevator: pure sun-brushed silo columns of cement rising from behind CB&Q freight car. The genius of Walker Evans and Charles Sheeler welded into one supreme photographic statement, I told myself. Then it occurred to me that it was I who was looking at the grain elevator. For the past year I had been sedulously aping the masters. And in Omaha I realized that I had developed my own style with the camera. I knew that I would photograph only what pleased me or astonished my eye, and only in the way I saw it.

He quickly developed that style of his own. And over the next several years ranged afield across the interior of the country, working out of various FSA regional offices at the standard $5-a-day salary also drawn by his more experienced colleagues Shahn, Evans, Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Carl Mydans, et al.

Samples of the photos that resulted from Vachon's odyssey can be seen here and in the two preceding posts. They capture the image of an America that is, for all intents and purposes, lost.

I say lost; yet then again some essence of what John Vachon saw in his travels, in those years of austerity, perhaps remains. His photographs seem to identify a trace in the American grain, a vein of lonely spaces, material emptinesses and great spiritual distances. But his eye can be hard and gentle in the same moment. He sees darknesses that go deep within the interiors of the common places, yet explores these depths dispassionately: as though they were merely surfaces, without judgment. The evident absence of judgment has made it difficult to classify Vachon as a social historian with a direct political intent. There is in his work a surprising affection for this vacant heartland.

And that element perhaps accounts for the paradoxical intimacy of scale, which brilliantly solicits the historical imagination.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Grand Grocery Co., Lincoln, Nebraska, 1942

Photos by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


Curtis Roberts said...

Thank you for this wonderful essay. Discovering Vachon, which I’m certain I never would have done on my own, is a revelation and a joy. I love Roy Stryker's phrase “congenital photographer” and also Vachon’s comments about how he took his natural talent and skills and deliberately developed his personal style after absorbing and miming the influence of other master photographers. The last line of your essay sums things up perfectly for me. All the photos -- the color at top and all the black & whites –- are wonderful. I’m amazed that I’ve never seen one of Vachon’s works juxtaposed against a James Rosenquist painting. (I’m thinking particularly of Woodbine, Iowa, Peculiar, Missouri and Girl And Movie Poster, but the American mood is very similar in the case of both artists.) I feel like researching this.

TC said...


We're seeing eye to eye and that always feels swell.

Vachon's comments on finding his style are so well put it's easy to see he could perhaps have been as good a writer as a photographer.

Rosenquist jumped right out of the Library of Congress Archive at me from those two shots you mention. I would be surprised if he had not seen Vachon's work, which from the FSA period on through the staff work at Life and Look stamped a certain element into the concept of the American image.

Vachon's use of billboards and signs and play with semiotics in his images, again, was light years ahead of the time.

Evans, then considered the master (and by no one less so than Evans himself), now looks static to me in comparison with Vachon.

The other photographers from the group who most appeal to me now are Russell Lee, whose astonishing compassion and respect for the dignity of human suffering and struggle is evident in the grand "Pie Town" work; Jack Delano, a sharp, jazz-loving Jewish kid from New York City who photographed the Vermont State Fair through eyes that seem those of an interplanetary visitor (see: "Reality"); and Marion Post Wolcott, the woman who did those wonderful Southern sequences on the two halves of "Jockey Street/Juke Joint".

(Roy Stryker recalled that Marion Post, still unmarried when she began with the FSA, was a real looker, and that after a while he had got up the nerve to ask her if that factor ever created any trouble for her on her assignments in the rural South. She told him that every time she landed in a new town, she'd immediately be hit on by the local police, chatting her up with leading questions about her sex life -- which, she told Stryker, she effectively fended off by saying she was on assignment and if she was late for a shoot, she'd be out of a job.)

And yes,"congenital photographer" is indeed a pure accidental stroke of genius on the part of old Roy Stryker, reminiscing about those FSA days from his ranch in Montrose, Colorado.

What riches!



Beautiful, some of those b & w ones (woman in front of poster) like Rudy Burckhardt (translated to the midwest) amazing view of things, each one, saturation of browns in those stores in Lincoln. . . . "intimacy of scale" --


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, blue jay landing in fence
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

object before it turns black
or blue, but in fact is

sometimes both, this example
of another, between two

grey-white of fog against top of ridge,
wingspan of pelican flapping toward it

TC said...


We, too, from here, under

grey whiteness of fog,

thought of Rudy...

...and the "saturation of browns" in Lincoln (Spengler called brown the "historical color").

John B-R said...

I have an image of Jack Kerouac (is it from Doctor Sax?), whistling, hands in jacket pockets, crossing a bridge ... by the time he gets to the other side he's stunned by the fact he doesn't recognize a thing ... so he writes his novels ... which are all so sad ...

I wonder how he might have handled it all had he known Vachon rather than Robert Frank ... I wonder if that would have "helped" any ...

(of course I'm being absurdly "romantic") (but losing a world is certainly not nothing ...)

(I'm old enough to have seen the world change out from under me, too, but I'm not bothered by it, since I didn't like "the way things were" enough to miss them ...)

TC said...


Interesting thought. To my eye the top image on the post below this one ("Something Occurring..."), children by the side of the road, doing whatever it is they are doing (that image has had several different captions over the years, each interpreting it differently), appears haunted by a psychic uneasiness not entirely alien to the melancholy trauma of Dr. Sax, but with the religion and the ethnicity left out. Which I suppose would be like leaving the carbon and the oxygen out of air.



Ah, those moments 'stopped' (caught? or isn't there there a next one? what happened next?) in Peculiar, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Cincinnatti -- color missing, no sound either -- moments repeated here. . . .


grey whiteness of fog above still black
ridge, red-tailed hawk calling in right
foreground, no sound of wave in channel

to which thinking would mean
that, not only opposite

of “what happens next,” that
is, but repeated moment

grey-white of fog against top of ridge,
circular green pine on tip of sandspit

Marylinn Kelly said...

The combination of your words - in the posts and comments - and John Vachon's photos support my feeling about timelessness. Once a thing, a person, a place, IS it continues to be so forever. I don't think I would have known of him without your writing. In my early childhood, the towns of the San Joaquin Valley echoed the sense of isolation, stillness and, in retrospect, a resistance to change that had already come and gone which I feel in some of the photos. I had foolish hope that somehow, times as they are, that our new administration would recognize the enduring value of WPA projects and undertake to revise such a program. I've let go of that fantasy.

TC said...

not only opposite

of “what happens next,” that
is, but repeated moment


my feeling about timelessness. Once a thing, a person, a place, IS it continues to be so forever.


Steve, Marylinn,

Thanks for feeling what's in the air here.

Is time merely a series of nonrepeatable moments and events with no relation beyond the fact that some seem to succeed some others... or is there an element of timelessness, of the repeated event, intricated into it all?

Marylinn, your comment about feeling disappointed to see with time that for all its bright promises the current administration has come up with nothing remotely akin to the New Deal programs, like the WPA -- and of course the Federal Writer's Project and Farm Security Administration were concurrent programs -- gets right to the heart of my reason for constructing these last half dozen posts.

Disappointment is not the same thing as nostalgia. We have the right to be disappointed. We have been picking up the ticket all along.