One spring day, I think it was in 1975, the late Lee Within, director of the Within Gallery in New York, came knocking at my door and invited me to go up country to Mendocino along the Pacific coast and visit Marion Post Walcott.
Marion Post Walcott “My God, isn’t she off somewhere in India or Egypt searching for the divine light of Shiva or something?” “Marion Post Walcott in California, I don’t believe it.” I felt it was my business to know what was going on in California and this character from New York comes and tells me Marion Post Walcott lives a couple hundred miles up the coast from me. I was still smarting from his having bought two Weston prints in an antique store for two bucks a piece on his last visit. I was embarrassed, but then Lee always had a habit of showing up and rubbing my nose in the reality that surrounded me.
Being a true devotee of the Farm Security Administration photographers, and seeing them as real heroic figures in the photographic firmament, I had spent considerable time over the years playing the game of “What ever happened to —“ with some members of that hearty band. I most particularly developed a curiosity about Marion Post Walcott. She certainly was a mystery figure in the FSA scheme of things. After doing important work for the Farm Security Administratin she went into Navajo country to help Navajo children and thence to Iran, Pakistan. Egypt, and India where she taught in American schools. Her mobility made her, perhaps, the most mysterious member of the FSA. She didn’t get the public notoriety that was accorded some of the others. An attractive, by all accounts, 28 year old woman who seemed endowed with an excess of courage. Being willing as she was, to expose herself, alone, to the uncertainties of a red-neck rural south where she was arrested as a spy, harassed by local sheriffs, pursed by slavering country-boys, trapped in a feud and eaten up by swamp lice, to mention only a few of the hazards she faced. Dorothea Lange usually traveled with a male companion, but boxy Marion did it on her own. She sounded like something special. I had always hoped one day to meet her.
You see, in my role as teacher I have spent a lot of time with that monumental body of FSA photographs. In the beginning, like so many others, I looked closely at walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. But as time passed I focused more and more on Ben Shane and Marion Post Walcott. Ben didn’t know how to get his pictures sharp, and probably didn’t care. They were certainly compelling in all other respects, especially within an art context which is the context in which I was teaching. MPW had it all together technically, especially in terms of light. She could handle all situations with a clarity and luminosity that was at times astounding. When it came to flash-lighting and photographs involving action she had no peer in the Photo Unit of FSA.
Moreover, there was a subtle personal feeling, a real contact with the people, that was sometimes missing in much of the FSA work. Not to bad-mouth the others, they were sensational; but in some special ways that appealed to me, Marion’s work stood apart. Perhaps is was her broad experience in newspaper work that taught her how to gain access. She had a habit of helping these people in their daily chores — going shopping for those without transportation, hanging out wash, minding the kids, and in other generous ways entering into the life of the people she photographed. Is it any wonder that the work is so personal. Certainly she had her “chops” together when it came to using the equipment effectively and with speed. In an art context you can get carried away with light as much as with social meaning. Some critics feel that it is the most basic consideration in the making of a photograph. For some photographers it is the very center of their approach. They think of light with almost a religious fervor. MPW could trip the light. FANTASTIC!
I had always felt that one short—coming of the FSA file was that it concentrated on effects more than causes. For good and practical political reasons Roy Stryker, the director of the program, centered the work on the rural poor in America. The ruling class was left out. Stryker liked to brag that you would find no shots of Wall street or of celebrities in the file. Marion, being of independent mind, rebelled against this pie-in-the sky approach. She understood that in many ways upper-class America was responsible for conditions in this country. In the depression years there was no shortage of money to fuel the economy. The problem was that the upper classes were hoarding it because they were running scared after 1929. There just wasn’t enough velocity to the flow of money. This is of course, a simplification with a grain of truth. The plain truth is that it was within the power of the well-heeled to turn things around; but they withdrew into a privileged world of hedonistic pleasure and ignored what was happening, hoping the problems would just go away.
Marion was the one shining exception to the FSA tendency to stick to the rural poor. Sure, Evans, Lange, and others in the unit showed the relationships between straw bosses and their work gangs very well indeed; but MPW went directly to the exclusive clubs, race tracks and other dens of the dip-pockets and revealed how the top third of America was finding its place in the sun while the bottom third was being parched into oblivion. There should have been much more of this coverage in the FSA files. perhaps it is hidden away in the couple hundred thousand negatives that have never been printed.
In so doing Marion pointed the way for the future documentary photography as typified later by some of the work of Robert Frank and Gary Winnogrand. Younger photographers are beginning to pick up on this vital new approach to the document. The time has come to take a thorough look at the causes of our many problems as well as the effects. W. Eugene Smith went to the heart of the matter with his Minimata essay. That essay brought one industrial polluter in Japan to their knees, and caused sweeping reaction across Japan.
Some of MPW’s best work reveals with uncompromising grace and dignity the plight of blacks in pre-Martin Luther King America. She dared to go into the juke-joints and other private haunts of Black-America and show us what life was really all about when they could escape the oppressive work-place and small-town streets. It was in the juke joints that she demonstrated real skill with flash, and at the same time caught moments of peak action that give us the feel and flavor of that world as noting else could. It is revealing to compare the sheer joy and energy of her photograph of jitterbugging on Saturday night in a Clarksdale, Mississippi juke joint against her street photograph taken in Wendell, North Carolina, of two young blacks trying hard to get out of the way of a white woman with a child in her arms. She was also wisely aware that the races could relate at times, as witnessed by her photograph of a black man and a white man playing checkers on a Florida porch while a white child and several blacks watched the action.
How was it that this 28 year old could be so aware of the subtlety of social interaction? most of the young of her generation were off in hot pursuit of the Horatio Alger Myth. Well, for one thing her mother had been a social activist. Perhaps more importantly, she had a chance to see Hitler in Germany first hand, and from that experience Marion came away with a profound revulsion for Nazism and Fascism. Unlike most of her generation, she saw the latent fascism that always threatened freedom in America. This threat to us all was nowhere more repugnantly demonstrated than by our subjugation of the blacks. The Klan was riding high in those years. This aspect of american life was almost as unsavory as Nazi persecution of the Jews. Don’t forget the lynchings in this country were an almost weekly occurrence, and not just in the deep South.
It is now common currency that the FSA photographs are the very symbolic yard-stick by which we measure that era in American History. When one thinks of the 30’s and early 40’s it is almost always in terms of FSA photographs. Even now their use in television and films is ubiquitous. They are the back drop against which commentary, both fictional and real, are set. One example will suffice. When Peter Begdonavich made the film, “The Last Picture Show” he drew heavily on FSA photographs to define what it was like in rural America in those days. By now this should go without saying. We live in an era in which most of what we know about life is based on images. We even know what the back side of the moon looks like.
What appeals to me is the artistry to be found in so much of the FSA work. It is, after all, the stuff of timelessness —the art content I mean. The best of the FSA photographs don’t survive just because they tell us about history. There were thousands of photographs made outside the FSA that are largely forgotten. It was a rather miraculous coming together of some first rate camera-workers. Many of these images are timeless not because of what they depict, but rather because of the artistry with which they are done.
Take a look with me at a photograph of Marion’s. It is of a defense worker’s home in FSA housing located in Redford, Virginia. Iconographically it is simple enough. There are five children near a house. One adult male is caught in the act of turning. There is a clothes line filled with clothes rhythmically dancing in the wind. In the background there are neat houses, all the same as the one in which this family presumably lives. Yes, it is loaded with social information, but it doesn’t stop there. Note the grace and fluid movement of all the figures. Feel the summer breeze on your face. It is a warm day, isn’t it? Look at the action unfolding with an uncommon grace. Observe the sense of light, one might even say luminosity, that pervades the whole scene. Look at how the shadows play across the ground and building in mimic of the movement of the man and children. Look at the rhythm of textures and surfaces so exquisitely rendered through the photographic process. Note how perfectly composed this photograph is. Isn’t this a transcendent moment in the unfolding of life? It is late on a summer’s day in 1941 and now, 45 years later, we can savor that rich moment with a little judicious use of our eyes. Am I getting carried away to call this a work of art of the highest order? Maybe, but if so I’ll go for it. It is on par with anything the Breugel boys ever painted. More than that, it presents the moment with unvarnished realism beyond anything painting can achieve. It is a magic moment in photography and human existence.
Well, Lee Within got me up to Mendocino and my fantasies about Marion Post Walcott were fully realized. There she was, everything a legend should be: radiant and intelligent; plucky and opinionated; full of grace and dignity like her photographs. And with her was her husband Lee, “a handsome devil” as my sainted Mother would have said. I tell you it was a most delightful day. We spent many earnest hours discussing photography and life. And so began a rewarding friendship which continues to the present.
Thank you Lee Witkin, wherever you are.
copyright: Jack Welpott, 1986