His Camera Never Lied: Jack Delano
For those who insist that government can do nothing noble, I would point to the life and work of photographer Jack Delano as a ringing denouncement of that sadly prevalent point of view. Delano died earlier this month in Puerto Rico, where he had lived and worked nobly at his craft since 1946. He was the last of a dying breed who saw the camera not as a tool to be used for public relations but as a window onto humanity's heart and soul.If that sounds corny or Capraesque, consider what he and his estimable colleagues -- who included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott and Arthur Rothstein -- set out to do in the darkest days of the Great Depression. They were dispatched by a federal government driven (some said intoxicated) by noble thoughts, its primary intention to give the American people a "New Deal." This "deal" was a series of economic reforms, social contracts and cultural programs that came under the heading of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vast bureaucratic gamble known as the Resettlement Administration.And guess what? It worked -- famously. It built our nation's now-crumbling infrastructure, it put murals in post offices and sculpture on town squares. Even the great American songbag into which we constantly dip is the result of the massive governmental action that began in the 1930s.Jack Delano was part of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which in 1935 dispatched photographers to document the lives of sharecroppers in the South. The now-classic, then-derided James Agee-Walker Evans collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, grew out of this.Slowly -- driven by the photographers' social consciences and brilliant leadership of director Roy Stryker -- the FSA took on a life of its own. By the time the project ended in 1942, swallowed by the benignly propagandistic Office of War Information, the FSA had recorded conditions throughout the country. And not just in rural areas, not just white, sad or downtrodden people -- and not just people, either.It was the unlikeliest governmental achievement: a thorough and systematic documentation of life in the United States that will probably never be duplicated. The figures still astound: 164,000 negatives; 2,600 color transparencies; 75,000 photographic prints; many notebooks and field records, all of it now in the Library of Congress, all of it public domain, all of it yours and mine -- our heritage. And Jack Delano had a hand in it.His is a richly American tale. Born Jacob Ovcharov in Kiev in 1914, reared in Philadelphia and rescued from poverty by music and art, Delano put it all down in a memoir, Photographic Memories (Smithsonian), to be published soon. Many of his reminiscences were recorded at a 1994 Library of Congress symposium and will be included in a separate Library of Congress publication American Stuff -- The New Deal Arts Projects which is also in the works (full disclosure -- I'm its editor).Delano's recollections about how he came to the FSA were typical of the ad hoc creative spirit of those times. "I lived in New York in a cold-water flat, with no money ... My darkroom was the back porch. In the winter, I had to wear an overcoat, hat and gloves to do my work and the solutions would be frozen. But those were minor inconveniences. I was still hoping to get to Washington," he recalled. "One day, I got a telegram from Stryker. It said, 'Opening available. Arthur Rothstein resigned. At $2,300 a year. Must have car. Must have license. Must know how to drive.' I had no car. I had no license. I didn't know how to drive. But those were details...off I rode, zigzagging through the Holland Tunnel, toward Washington and somehow or other, since God takes care of fools and madmen, I got there."After a few days of mentoring by Edwin and Louise Rosskam, two other unsung FSA photographers, Delano was sent on his first assignment by Stryker. "As frequently happened with Roy, the assignment was very general and very open. I was to keep my eyes open and photograph everything I saw in New England. That's all. Another typical Roy assignment was 'Photograph everything on Route 1 from Florida to Maine'."Delano photographed the mills of Lowell, Mass. -- which were still operating back then -- the Vermont Country Fair, Portuguese fishermen and Armenian farmers in Rhode Island and tobacco farmers in Connecticut. In the middle of his New England idyll, Stryker sent him to Greene County, Ga., to document the toils and troubles of black sharecroppers."I had never been in the Deep South before. I had never felt what it meant to be in a racist society. I had to learn how to behave. I had to learn, for instance, that you can't shake hands with a black man when you're introduced. You can't call him 'mister'. You have to call him by his first name," he said. "Many of these experiences were very difficult for me."Nonetheless, Delano spent a great deal of time in Greene County, his FSA photographs eventually used to illustrate Arthur Raper's classic book Tenants of the Almighty, as well as Richard Wright's Twelve Million Black Voices. His reputation buoyed, Delano was sent by Stryker to the U.S. Virgin Islands and from there, to Puerto Rico. From that brief exposure, he fell in love with the island and eventually settled there, after serving a tour of duty as a combat photographer in World War II. He and his wife Irene Esser, a gifted book illustrator, spent their years in Puerto Rico working to better the lives of the people in the rural communities. Their son Pablo now lives in West Hartford.At the Library symposium, Delano accompanied his remarks with a slide show of some of his FSA photographs. He ended his presentation the way he wanted to be remembered."I can't think of any better way to end this except this photograph of me and Irene in a hotel somewhere in the Midwest, changing rolls of film, checking our cameras and getting ready for another day of discovery and adventure. Thank you very much."No. Thank you very much, Jack Delano.