Marion Post Wolcott is a great but little-known social-documentary photographer. As a photographer, she produced insightful and sensitive pictures of people and their environments. As a woman in the 1930s, she made the unusual and risky choice to work in the field alone for the Farm Security Administration.
A book on her work, "Marion Post Wolcott: A Photographic Journey" by F. Jack Hurley, was recently published by the University of New Mexico Press in conjunction with a traveling photography show of the same title.Wolcott was unschooled in photography. She picked up skills from her sister, who was a beginning photographer, and sought advice from the Photo League in New York. To make ends meet, she took a job with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
All this was typical for the mid-1930s. No schools offered courses in photography. The two- and three-day seminars known as "short courses" didn't get started at Kent State University and other schools until later. Aspiring photographers often took jobs with newspapers, working in the darkroom while they tried to learn how to use the cumbersome Speed Graphic camera and 4-by-5 negative holders.
Competition for jobs and publication could be fierce, and newcomers were a threat. Although Wolcott was a new employee who knew how to use a camera, she was a woman in a men's world, and they let her know it.
She was dismayed that her assignments consisted of only fashion news, tea parties and other items for the "Ladies" page. This was a far cry from the meaningful documentary work she had wanted to do. She endured, despite spitballs, coarse language, bad times and cigarette butts in her developer.
After a year, she got a written introduction to Roy Stryker of the FSA in Washington, D.C., and left Philadelphia to work for the government agency.
The FSA was a part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The country was in the midst of the Depression and the FSA was charged with building up a file of American images that would help sell the government's farm programs to the public.
FSA photographers later would become famous and their work would set the standard for documentary photography for decades. Wolcott's colleagues included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein.
From 1938 through 1941, Wolcott worked alone, traveling mostly in the South, taking pictures of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, migrants and coal miners. She also made time to photograph the richer and more powerful residents of the area, sometimes photographing couples on vacation lounging at the club. The contrast between the life of a day laborer and a gentleman being served brunch couldn't be sharper.
Wolcott's photographs are neither brutal nor cliche. They present people with quiet dignity in the midst of a daily routine. They are simple poems of the lives of working, and sometimes impoverished, people.
Farm wives with flowered aprons over flowered dresses peel potatoes earnestly. A coal miner's wife carries a heavy bucket of water onto a dilapidated porch, the unpainted clapboard and broken window panes speaking of poverty.
After four years with the FSA, in which she often spent months on the road, Wolcott quit to raise a family. She continued to do her own work, photographing in the Middle East, Iran and Pakistan, where she and her husband lived and traveled on State Department business.
"Marion Post Wolcott" is a well-illustrated and beautifully printed volume. Hurley's text includes correspondence between Wolcott and Stryker, which provides an insider's view of her life on the road.