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Selected WPA Photographers

Stryker hired a plethora of talented photographers with varied backgrounds whose collective works set a standard for future documentary photographers. Here are detailed biographies of four of these individuals: Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott.


Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange on car
      Dorothea Lange, 1936
      (Wikimedia Commons)

Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn in 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. She dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's maiden name after her father abandoned her and her mother. Dorothea developed polio at age 7, which left her with a permanent limp. She attended public schools in New York City and was enrolled in the New York Training School for Teachers from 1914 through 1917. Lange worked in the photography studios of Arnold Genthe and Charles Davis and attended a class taught by Clarence White at Columbia University.

In 1918, she moved to San Francisco, where she opened a successful portrait studio. She lived in Berkeley for the rest of her life. In 1935 she married economist Paul Schuster Taylor, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Together they documented rural poverty and migrant laborers for five years; Lange took the photos, and Taylor did the interviewing and collected data.

Child living Oklahoma City shacktown
      Child living in Oklahoma City shacktown
      (Library of Congress)

As the Depression started to take hold and her portrait business declined, she turned her camera to unemployed people. These photographs led to her employment with the Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration. From 1935 to 1939, Lange photographed the poor, sharecroppers, displaced families, and migrant workers and brought their plight to the attention of the public. Because FSA photos were distributed free to news publications, many of her photos became icons of the Depression. Lange's most famous photo is undoubtedly Migrant Mother.

During World War II she was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the internment of Japanese-Americans to relocation camps, highlighting Manzanar, the first of the permanent internment camps. The Army impounded her photos as being too critical. The photographs of the internment are now available in the [National Archives] on the website of the [Still Photographs Division], and at the [Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley].

Toward Los Angeles, CA
    Toward Los Angeles, California
    (Library of Congress)

In 1945, she photographed the United Nations Conference in San Francisco for the State Department. Lange was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a position at the California School of Fine Arts, and in 1952, she cofounded the photography magazine Aperture. Lange died in 1965 in California. A retrospective exhibition of her work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. In 1972 the Whitney Museum used twenty-seven of Lange's photographs in an exhibit entitled [Executive Order 9066]. This exhibit highlighted the Japanese internment during World War II.

Lange was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.



Russell Lee

Russell Lee
   (Wikimedia Commons)

Russell Lee was born in 1905 in Ottawa, Illinois, and after an unsettling childhood that included his parents' divorce and his mother's death, he enrolled at Culver Military Academy in Indiana and later graduated from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania with a degree in chemical engineering. He returned to Illinois, and in 1927 he married Doris Emrick.

By 1929 he had grown bored with his career and upon the advice of a friend moved to an artist's community in Woodstock, NY, to pursue painting. After several unsatisfying years of painting landscapes and portraits, Lee purchased his first camera, which he initially intended to use to help with his painting and draftsmanship. He quickly became interested in photographing the effects of the Depression, starting locally with photographs of people forced to sell their personal belongings, and working his way to New York City and to Pennsylvania bootleg coal mines.

Secondhand tires displayed for sale, San Marcos, CA
  Secondhand tires displayed for sale, San Marcos, CA
  (Library of Congress)

He joined the Resettlement Agency in 1936 and worked all over the United States. He was best known for his photographic series, including those in San Augustine, Texas, and Pie Town, New Mexico. In 1939 he and Doris divorced, and later that year he met and later married Jean Smith, a Dallas journalist who used her expertise to help Lee submit his photographs with captions already attached and with exceptional speed.

On December 7, 1941, the couple was in California, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor they immediately telegraphed Stryker for instructions. After photographing newsboys with the latest editions of the local newspapers, the Lees went to Salinas, where they were to produce a set of photographs about the cultivation of a source of rubber as well as other agricultural products that would be needed for the war. These projects ended as the need for documenting war preparations took precedence. In April 1942, Lee joined Dorothea Lange and other photographers in documenting the internment of Japanese Americans.

Later that year Lee joined the Overseas Technical Unit of the Airforce Transport Command, where he photographed routes flown by the ATC. After his own service during the war, Lee continued to work for Stryker at Standard Oil. After moving to Austin, Texas in 1947, he became the first instructor of photography at the University of Texas in 1965.

Lee died in 1986.



John Vachon

John Vachon
   (Wikimedia Commons)

John Vachon was born in 1914 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He graduated from St. Thomas College in 1934. While enrolled in graduate school at Catholic University he was looking for a job in Washington, D.C., when he heard of an opportunity with the Resettlement Administration.

He interviewed with Roy Stryker, who told him the job was temporary and consisted of the "rather dull work" of copying photo captions onto the back of prints done by Stryker's photographers. Vachon began studying their photographs as he worked and in 1937, with much encouragement and assistance from Stryker and his group, he began taking his own photographs around the Potomac River area using a borrowed Leica. In 1938, Stryker gave him his first solo assignment in Nebraska, and until 1941 Vachon both photographed and continued to classify the FSA archive.


Migrant fruit workers. Berrien County, MI
  Migrant fruit workers. Berrien County, MI
  (Library of Congress)

Vachon's hallmark became the use of natural light and black-and-white film, though many of his later and more well-known works, including "African American Boy," were done in color.

Vachon continued working with the FSA until it was disbanded, and after he finished his service in World War II he worked with Stryker at Standard Oil. He later became a photographer for both Life and Look magazines. After Look ceased publication in 1971, he became a freelance photographer and completed a visiting lectureship at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

He died in 1975 at the age of 60.



Marion Post Wolcott

Marion Wolcott in snow
    (Wikimedia Commons)

Marion Post was born in Montclair, N.J., in 1910, the daughter of wealthy parents. She attended boarding school and later taught children while studying early childhood education at the New School for Social Research and New York University. Her mother worked for Margaret Sanger, the famous women's health advocate, and as a result of this relationship, both mother and daughter became part of a group of writers and artists in New York City.

Post travelled to Europe to study dance in Paris and later education in Vienna, where her sister Helena was studying photography. She met Trude Fleischmann, Helena's teacher, who praised her work and encouraged her to become a photographer as well. In Vienna the sisters witnessed the rise of the Nazi party and worked to protect the children of persecuted socialist workers until the university closed in 1943 and they were forced to return to America.

Post continued her political activism and her study of photography in the states, and in 1938 she sent her portfolio to Stryker, who hired her to work for the FSA.

Cattle call
      Cattle call
      (Wikimedia Commons)

Post's style was to use her camera to capture sociological aspects of her assigned subjects. She was best known for her documentation of the tobacco industry in the southeastern United States and photographed farm families, scenes of racial segregation, and the unique workings of tobacco auctions. In 1941 Post married Lee Wolcott, a federal agriculture official, and because of her desire to devote herself to family and her disillusionment with government relief programs, she resigned from the FSA.

Although Wolcott occasionally took photographs in later years, she never resumed full-time photography. She died in 1990.



Further information

Selected bibliography

Lange

Borhan, P. (2002). Dorothea Lange: the heart and mind of a photographer. Boston: Bulfinch Press Book.

Clarke, B. (1997). Image and imagination: encounters with the photography of Dorothea Lange. San Francisco, CA: Freedom Voices.

Coles, R. (1982). Dorothea Lange: photographs of a lifetime: an aperture monograph. Oakland: Aperture Foundation.

Durden, M. (2001). Dorothea Lange. New York: Phaidon Press Limited.

Fisher, A. (1987). Let us now praise famous women: women photographers for the U.S. government, 1935 to 1944: Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Pauline Ehrlich, Dorothea Lange, Martha McMillan Roberts, Marion Post Wolcott, Ann Rosener, Louise Rosskam. New York: Pandora Press.

Heyman, T. T. (1978). Celebrating a collection: the work of Dorothea Lange. Oakland, CA: Oakland Museum.

Heyman, T. T. (1994). Dorothea Lange: American photographs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Lange, D. (1980). Dorothea Lange: Farm Security Administration photographs, 1935-1939: from the Library of Congress. Glencoe, IL: Text-Fiche Press.

Lange, D. (1973). To a cabin. New York: Grossman Publishers.

Lange, D., Davis, K. F., & Botkin, K. (1995). The photographs of Dorothea Lange. Kansas City: Hallmark Cards.

Lange, D., & Partridge, E. (1998). Restless spirit: The life and work of Dorothea Lange. New York: Viking.

Lange, D., & Wollenberg, C. (1995). Photographing the second Gold Rush: Dorothea Lange and the East Bay at war, 1941 - 1945. Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Meltzer, M. (1978). Dorothea Lange: a photographer's life. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Mullins, G. (1998). Dorothea Lange's Ireland. Boulder, CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers.

Museum of Modern Art (NY). (1966). Dorothea Lange. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Newhall, B. (1967). Dorothea Lange looks at the American Country woman. Los Angeles: Amon Carter Museum at Fort Worth and Ward Ritchie Press.

Partridge, E. (Ed.) (1994). Dorothea Lange: a visual life. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Taylor, P. S., & Lange, D. (1939). An American exodus: A record of human erosion. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock.

Lee

Lee, R. (July-August 1980). "Pie Town." Creative Camera, 193/194,246-53.

Lee, R. (1978). Russell Lee, photographer. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan and Morgan.

Lee, R., Collier, J., & Delano, J. (1993). Threads of culture: photography in New Mexico 1939-1943. Russell Lee, John Collier, Jr., Jack Delano. Santa Fe: Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico.

Lee, R., Collier, J., Delano, J., & Colson, J. B. (1994). Far from Main Street: three photographers in Depression-Era New Mexico. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

Lee, R., & Wroth, W. (1985). Russell Lee's FSA Photographs of Chamisal and Peñasco, New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press.

Vachon

Hull, A. (8 October 1943). "John Vachon, noted cameraman, departs." Greenbelt [Maryland] Cooperator, 8, 1-2.

Vachon, J. (2003). John Vachon's America: photographs and letters from the Depression to World War II. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Vachon, J. (1995). Poland, 1946: The photographs and letters of John Vachon. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Wolcott

Hendrickson, P. (1992). Looking for the light: The hidden life and art of Marion Post Wolcott. New York: Knopf.

Wolcott, M. P. (1983). FSA photographs/Marion Post Wolcott. Carmel, CA: Friends of Photography.

Online resources

Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers and Broadcasters during WWII
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/wcf/wcf0013.html

The Art Department of the Oakland Museum of California Dorothea Lange Collection
http://www.museumca.org/global/art/collections_dorothea_lange.html

DOROTHEA LANGE: Focus on Richmond
http://www.ibiblio.org/channel/Lange.html

The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco: Dorothea Lange and the Relocation of the Japanese
http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist/lange.html

America's Stories From America's Library: Dorothea Lange
http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/aa/lange

History Place: Dorothea Lange
http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/lange/

Documenting America : FSA B&W Photos Migrant Workers Photographer: Dorothea Lange
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap03.html

Smithsonian Archives of American Art: Interview with Dorothea Lange conducted by Richard K. Doud in New York, New York May 22, 1964
http://artarchives.si.edu/oralhist/lange64.htm

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection: An Overview
http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html

Dorothea Lange: Photographer of the People
http://www.dorothea-lange.org/text.home.htm

Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography, Texas State University San Marcos; Russell Lee Collection
http://www.library.swt.edu/swwc/wg/exhibits/rlee

The Handbook of Texas Online
http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/LL/fle71.html

Lee Gallery
http://www.leegallery.com/prejune.html

FSA-OWI Photos, Documenting America, Omaha: Photographer: John Vachon, Omaha, Nebraska, November 1938, Farm Security Administration, Lot 412
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap02.html

John Vachon for Look Magazine: Rights and Restrictions Information
http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/260_vach.html

John Vachon (Wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Vachon

John Vachon Interview, April 1964
http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/vachon64.htm

The Halstead Gallery: Marion Post Wolcott
http://www.halstedgallery.com/artists/mp_wolcott/

Marion Post Wolcott: A biographical sketch by Linda Wolcott-Moore
http://www.people.virginia.edu/~bhs2u/mpw/mpw-bio.html

Biography of Marion Post Wolcott
http://www.oberlin.edu/library/papers/honorshistory/2001-Gorman/FSA/MPWbiography/mpw1.html

Smithsonian Archives of American Art:Interview with Marion Post Wolcott conducted by Richard Doud at Artist's Home in Mill Valley, California January 18, 1965
http://artarchives.si.edu/oralhist/wolcot65.htm

Hard Times: Arkansas Depression-era Photographs by Marion Post Wolcott
http://www.oldstatehouse.com/exhibits/virtual/hard_times/marion_post/

The Photography of Marion Post Wolcott
http://catlin.clas.virginia.edu/shadows/mpw/mpw-top.html

References:
Mora, G., & Brannan, B. W. (2006). FSA: The American Vision. New York:Abrams.
http://www.cimarronkansas.net/russelllee.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Lee_(photographer)