Two iconic photographs created by photographer Jack Delano, Commuters, Lowell, MA (1941) and Steel Mills Midland, PA (1941), provide a tantalizing glimpse into his extensive pictorial record of American rural life from 1933-1944. Subsequent to graduating from the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts in 1932 Delano was awarded the Kesson Fellowship, which allowed him to travel for a year in Europe. It was there that he bought his first camera, and he soon used it to record history and heighten social awareness. With his camera, Delano captured valuable historical events, and in doing so, he gave voice to those most affected by tragedy. In 1939, he was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) photography project, a governmental effort to record and understand the effects of policy reform on small-town America. As seen in these two photographs, Delano made place a defining aspect his work — two of his photographic subjects were Lowell, Massachusetts, and Midland, Pennsylvania. These were among the first large-scale American factory towns that were hit hard by the Depression. Delano’s humanistic and forthright representation of small-town America offers a meditation on national identity, and also forges a historical memory of the Great Depression.
Commutersattests to Delano’s greatest photographic interest: the working American. He candidly captures workers waiting for their morning bus. His somber, unsentimental representation of daily events embodies his distinct approach to portraying the dismal mood of the Great Depression. Unlike his earlier photographic documentations, Delano places women workers at the front and center of this composition, making plain their significant contribution to the workforce during this era. Delano’s presence remains unnoticed as the workers wait in the cold. This image becomes a profound representation of the times: despite their disagreeable current conditions, the workers maintain an air of expectancy and hope.
Steel Millsalso links a historical moment to the values and ideals embodied in the American identity. The carefully composed landscape speaks to the natural beauty of the American landscape as well as the ideal that cutting-edge industrialism is tantamount to progress. With the verdant grass and clear blue sky, this photograph boasts a natural beauty as breathtaking as the towering steel mills on the horizon. The juxtaposition of man versus nature, as evident in the composition, demonstrates the paradox that is America: a people, both as deeply connected to the land as they are committed to the progress of industry. In the forefront of the picture, Delano unapologetically presents the makeshift housing: plain and simply the aftermath of a damaged economy. Within this landscape, Delano alludes to the historical connection to the land, and the current economic crisis, while still acknowledging the hopeful economic possibilities.
Color prints required considerable patience and expense, so only one percent of all photographs taken for the FSA project were in color. The richness of the color in these particular photographs makes them some of the most striking of their time. The detail and sharpness of each image results from Delano’s painstaking accuracy and technique. Indeed, Delano’s impeccable approach to the technical aspects of photography is quite admirable, yet, truly remarkable is his ability to poignantly capture American traditions and ideals through the documentation of everyday moments in time.
Written by Kayla Erickson (SC ’09) 2008-2009 Wilson Intern.