John Vachon’s America
Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II
John Vachon (Author), Miles Orvell (Editor)
Vachon nurtured a lifelong ambition to be a writer, and the intimate and revealing letters he wrote from the field to his wife back home reflect vividly on American conditions, on movies and jazz, on landscape, and on his job fulfilling the directives from Washington to capture the heart of America. Together, these letters and photographs, along with journal entries and other writings by Vachon, constitute a multifaceted biography of this remarkable photographer and a unique look at the years he captured in such unforgettable images.
Vachon's letters, especially to his wife (Penny), help us to better understand not just his pictures but the time frame in which he worked. Miles Orvell uses those photos and letters, coupled with his own commentary, to explain what people at the FSA hoped to accomplish:
Above all, from 1935 to 1943 the government, through the Farm Security Administration, conducted the greatest documentary effort in history, sending more than forty photographers into the field and across the United States to collect images of American life that would result in an archive of 165,000 classified FSA prints, with an additional 100,000 negatives gathered from other sources and put into the general archive. Most of the FSA images were taken under the direction of [Roy] Stryker, the chief of the Historical Unit, who managed and directed from two to a dozen photographers at any given time (depending on available funding), spread out across the nation.
[John] Vachon toiled under Roy Stryker longer than virtually any other FSA photographer (six years), and he went on, before being drafted into the army, to work briefly for the Standard Oil Company, which was gathering a photographic archive ostensibly relating to oil production, again under Stryker's direction. (John Vachon's America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II, by John Vachon and Miles Orvell, page 5.)
Although he took some incredible pictures, Vachon's work is less well known than (for example) Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" photos. Why is that?
A primary reason was that, unlike better-known photographers of the era, he produced no single picture or set of pictures that achieved iconic status. Fame is partly a function of accident and timing, as well as the photographer's ability to advance him- or herself in the competitive world of photojournalism. And here Vachon may have had himself to blame, and his own habits of self-deprecation: immensely gifted yet deeply suspicious of his gifts, Vachon was anything but self-promoting.
Another possible reason for his general neglect is that he began photographing for the agency in 1937, after Evans, Lange, Shahn, Rothstein and others had already established their reputations by photographing largely rural and farming subjects, often in the South or in dust bowl regions. (John Vachon's America, page 5.)
Yet ... we have Vachon's compelling picture of a "worker at a carbon black plant" in Sunray, Texas. What is a carbon black plant? Vachon personally answers that question in a November 11, 1942 letter to his wife Penny:
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's America, page 227.)
This image is one of those portraits. Vachon took it - in 1942 - at a carbon black plant in Sunray, Texas.
Rare photographs taken of the screen goddess during the summer of 1953, while on the set of "River of No Return." The photos were, taken by John Vachon from LOOK magazine, were filed away for nearly 60 years until the release of "Marilyn, August 1953: The Lost LOOK Photos" (Dover Publications). During the difficult shoot, of The River of No Return, director, Preminger had to contend with frequent rain, Robert Mitchum's heavy drinking, and an injury to Marilyn's ankle that kept her off the set for several days.