Marilyn and John Vachon, 1953
Marilyn photographed by John Vachon during location shooting for River Of No Return in August 1953
Text by Bruce Berman, Editor
In 1936 John Vachon was a “late” FSA photographer. His original job was to catalog other photographer’s images. He was, at 21, a “filing clerk,” for the FSA library and had little intention of being a photographer. He needed a job.
By 1937, Vachon had become completely familiar with the FSA, its Director, Roy Stryker and the works of the of the FSA photographers.
He wanted in!
Early supporters and mentors were Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shah (who introduced him to the small mobile Leica 35mm camera). Vachon started shooting in the Potomac Valley but his initial images weren’t much above the level of “amateur.”
However, in time, with the mentoring of Rothstein and Evans -and others- and the critiques of Stryker, Vachon improved, to the point where Stryker gave him his first out-of-DC assignment. In October and November 1938, Vachon traveled to Nebraska on his first extensive solo trip. He photographed agricultural programs on behalf of the FSA’s regional office and pursued an extra assignment from Stryker: the city of Omaha.
Less remembered by the general public is that Vachon went on, in his post FSA (and OWI War Information Information) life, to be a near celebrity photographer for Look magazine, the great rival of LIFE magazine, the principal place to find great photography in that era.
In 1973, he won a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1975 he was a visiting professor at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
He died in 1975 in New York at age 60.
Vachon was known for deep empathy but a boyishness that made his work a less heavy social commentary than some of his FSA colleagues.
The photos, above, show this side of Vachon.