Ordinary People: Jack Delano

by Arthur H. Bleich

Jack Delano

January 01, 2010 — 1930s America—The stock market crash of 1929 had spun the country into a death spiral and 25 percent of the work force was unemployed. Millions were homeless. Rural areas were decimated as severe droughts spawned dust storms that ravaged the land. Baked out, blown out and broke, people drifted aimlessly from place to place, looking for whatever work they could find, desperate just to stay alive.

Yet, there was hope. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan, the New Deal, swung into action during 1933 to help the nation recover. Relief for farmers was a priority and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was set up to provide it. A Historical Section within the agency, headed by a former college instructor Roy Stryker, was created to supply newspapers, magazines and books with pictures that would document the FSA’s political agenda. And then the hiring of photographers began.

While Stryker was assembling his staff, a young art student named Jacob Ovcharov—later Americanized to Jack Delano—was studying magazine illustration at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1923, when he was 10, his family had emigrated to Philadelphia from Voroshilovka, a small village near Kiev in the Ukraine. His father, who was a teacher, and his mother, a dentist, encouraged him and his younger brother’s love of art and music. In his autobiography, Photographic Memories, Delano recalls: “My parents were always supportive of anything my brother and I did. They were willing to make any sacrifice to help us achieve our aims.”

One of his aims was to go abroad, a trip his parents might well have underwritten except for the fact that in 1935 the Academy awarded him a four-month scholarship to travel throughout Europe and study art at museums, churches and galleries. Once there, he recalls, he was overwhelmed by it all. “I had bought a small camera in Europe just to take some tourist pictures, and now I began to think that perhaps in photographs I could show the same concern and understanding of ordinary people that I found so compelling in the works of artists I admired so much.”

But Delano didn’t pursue photography until after he graduated in 1937. An art director friend gave him his first commercial assignment, a soap ad that promised to pay $100—big money at the time. He asked his girlfriend, Irene Esser, to pose and recalls the photograph being “well lighted and technically excellent.” However, Irene did not have “the delicate, dainty, smooth hands the agency was looking for” and the picture was rejected. No matter. He felt that commercial photography wasn’t right for him. “I was interested in social conditions and I thought the camera could be a means of communicating how I felt about problems facing the country and that therefore I could perhaps influence the course of events.” What he really wanted to do, he sensed, was to capture the lives of ordinary people as Van Gogh had done in his paintings of Dutch peasants.

His chance came in 1938 when the Federal Arts Project, a New Deal effort to keep artists employed, approved his proposal to document life in a coal-mining town. The Miners Union arranged for him to live with a family in Pottsville, PA, “a dirty, dreary town with an open sewer running along the main street and houses that tilted this way and that because of the coal-mining tunnels under the street.” But the people were genial and when he returned after a month’s shooting he had several hundred undeveloped negatives, which he then processed and printed.

These were exhibited as large blow-ups at a local art gallery and prominent photographer Paul Strand, who was in Philadelphia at the time, came to the showing and was impressed with the images. He told Delano he’d recommend him wherever he applied for a job. That would prove to be propitious for the young photographer as Strand was a close friend of Roy Stryker.

After the exhibit, Delano moved to New York to be near Irene, who was working on murals for the New York World’s Fair. He tried to eke out a living as a freelance photographer but found it tough. Fortunately, his parents and Irene’s were able to provide some financial help. A year later, he began to notice the work of other FSA photographers—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn and others—in magazines and books and it had “a profound effect” on him. “I could think of no place I would rather work than at the FSA.”

He wrote to Roy Stryker with high hopes, sending him two spiral-bound books of his coal mining pictures, and received a telegram back: “Sorry. No openings available. Good work. Do not give up hope. Read the following books. Roy Stryker.” A long list of books about economics, geography, history and sociology followed and Delano began to read them.

Stryker was frequently heavy-handed with both his staff and with pictures that didn’t meet his aesthetic or political requirements; he’d punch a big hole through negatives he didn’t like. But he was also astute enough to realize that aside from showcasing government-run projects, he also had to show the plight of the people the programs were designed to help. Delano’s miners’ images struck the right chord with him.

When Arthur Rothstein left the agency in early 1940 to take a staff position at Look magazine, Paul Strand urged Stryker to offer Delano a job. Years later, when Delano visited the legendary photographer on his deathbed, Strand smiled at him and said, good-naturedly, “I’m responsible for you, you know. I’m responsible for you, and don’t ever forget it.”
Starting with a series of short trips out of Washington, Delano’s operational radius was gradually increased and he soon found himself covering itinerant farm workers on their migration from Florida to Maine. Though he occasionally shot 21/4 roll film—and later on, 35mm—most of his work was done with a heavy 4 x 5 Speed Graphic that used sheet film; every shot counted and had to be carefully composed before the shutter button was depressed. With him was Irene, now his wife, who helped keep him organized by loading film holders, taking notes, writing captions “and, best of all, editing and criticizing my work.”

Delano, like all FSA photographers, was given detailed shooting scripts by Stryker, but he was not required to follow them slavishly and was encouraged to be creative by finding subjects he felt would be interesting. In rural Georgia, Delano remembers driving past a group of black people going to church one Sunday morning and stopping to ask the minister if he could shoot pictures at the service. “I could see by the cold expression on his face that he wished we would disappear and leave him alone, but after a long, awkward pause he nodded and said we could go ahead.”

With Irene holding an extension flash Delano began to shoot toward the altar: “Flash! Flash! Flash!” he recalls, “as people tried to concentrate on their prayers.” When he then asked Irene to stand next to the altar facing the people, she loudly protested, not wishing to embarrass them. Delano insisted. “Finally, with a venomous look in my direction, she did as I asked, and I got my pictures.” After that incident he had to endure three days of silent treatment from his wife but was vindicated when the resulting images were featured in two ambitious FSA book projects. A reviewer wrote: “No other photographer, even Dorothea Lange... can show the living spirit of the people more clearly than Jack Delano.”
When WWII began, the FSA was folded into the Office of War Information (OWI) and its photographers were assigned to projects that would promote the war effort. Much to his delight, Delano was tapped for a month-long trip to document America’s railroads; he’d ride with the crews and even had the authority to stop the train (with the engineer’s consent) to get any shots he needed.

He was eager to shoot color on the assignment. Most OWI photographers shot with black and white but limited quantities of Kodachrome were available for those who could tolerate its slow sensitivity of ASA 8 (Daylight) and ASA 10 (Tungsten). Having used the film previously on some FSA assignments, Delano was comfortable with it; when it came to attempting seemingly impossible shots with long exposures in the dingy interiors of repair shops, roundhouses, stations and even at night in the yards, he was fearless.

He was afraid, though, of being left behind by the train when he hopped off to shoot pictures at short stops. He wrote Stryker: “One of the first things I learned was that I couldn’t be in two places at the same time, that is, at the caboose end and the engine end. The distance might be anything from a quarter of a mile to over a mile and it was impossible for me to be running back and forth because the stops were often very short and the train would start before I got to either end.”

Delano’s first attempt to stop a train for a shot he wanted was met by the engineer’s blunt refusal. “Young man,” he said, “if I stopped the train here we could never get it started again but would go rolling down the hill backward.” So Delano waited until he was aboard a different train, one that was rounding a curve with more than a 100 cars strung out behind carrying bombs, tractors, trucks and tanks. This time the engineer complied and brought the train to a halt.

Delano hopped off but found the composition wasn’t right; the train needed to be moved forward some more. He shouted instructions to the engineer and the train inched forward. “Never had I had such a sense of power,” he recalls. “I felt like Hercules. Wow! To think I could move that whole train with just the wave of my hand.” When he’d finished shooting, he signaled the engineer to get moving again and hopped on the caboose as it rolled by.

In all, Delano shot thousands of images during his three-year tenure with the FSA/OWI and more than 5000 are in the archives of the Library of Congress. He documented state fairs in Vermont, convicts in Georgia, textile workers in Connecticut, waiters and maids in D.C., soldiers in Maryland, fruit ranches in California, cane cutters in Puerto Rico, soldiers in Virginia, stockyards in Illinois, aircraft factories in Tennessee, tenant farmers in Alabama and more.

Though Stryker routinely hired, fired and rehired scores of photographers, Delano was one of the agency’s anchors, and one of the few who could survive the grind. On the road for months at a time, his unexposed film had to be mailed back to Washington for processing. He never saw what he had shot until he and Irene received a package of prints weeks later. Then they spent hours captioning the pictures before mailing them back again. It was exhausting work performed in numbing cold and sweltering heat, frequently coupled with bad food, primitive accommodations and recalcitrant subjects who were suspicious of their motives.

His pictures, though, went far beyond documenting government programs. Reflected in them are the soul of America and the courage of its people during one of the toughest times in their history. The indomitable spirit of the nation shines through in his images of family closeness, folks enjoying simple pleasures and pride reflected in the faces of workers who were getting their lives together again.

In 1943, after three years with the FSA/OWI, Delano was inducted into the military and became a still photography officer for the Air Force, shooting various assignments in the Pacific. When the war ended, he and Irene settled in Puerto Rico, where he continued to shoot pictures, published books, painted and became involved in films, television and musical composition.

Just before his death in 1997, at 83, Delano wrote: “In spite of the horrendous inequities and injustices that still plague us everywhere in the world, I have never lost my faith in the essential goodness of ordinary people. I think it is my lifelong concern for the common people and appreciation of their value that have been the driving force behind everything I have done.” His extraordinary images are an enduring testament to that.

Jack Delano’s entire body of work, viewable in the FSA/OWI files, may be found at: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsaallquery.html. His books are available on Amazon.com.

Arthur H. Bleich (arthur@dpcorner.com) is a photographer, writer and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the United States and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at www.dpcorner.com and www.dpcorner.com/cruise for his cruise workshop.

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