Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
Vegetable workers-migrants, waiting to be paid
near Homestead Florida 1939 (photograph/LOC)
Marion Post Wolcott was one of the later Farm Security Farm Security Administration ( FSA) photographers and went on to be one of the Office of War Information photographers (OWI) under the direction of her former boss, at FSA, Roy Stryker. She was unique among FSA photographers, showing the extremes of the country’s rich and poor in the late 30’s, and addressed the issues of race relations with intensity and depth.
Wolcott’s creativity and her unfailing perseverance resulted in powerful documentary images: farmers harvesting the tobacco fields in Lexington, KY; affluent spectators at the races in Florida; coal miners and their families throughout West Virginia and farm laborers in North Carolina and Mississippi.
Her interest in being a photographer and in showing the plight of the poor during the Depression started, perhaps, as she witnessed the impact on working people around her. In 1932 she was working as a teacher in a small Massachusetts town where she was then teaching and became aware of the disparity in living conditions between the affluent children she taught and the increasingly poor millworkers and their families who peopled the town. Marion grew increasingly disillusioned with the “American System,” as the town and the school closed down.
She later went to Europe, witnessed the rising tide of fascism and its devastating impact on minorities and returned to the United States and moved to New York City. She joined the Photo League and began to pursue a career in photography.
Needing more income,, in a conversation with Ralph Steiner, she toyed with the idea of quitting photography as a profession. Ralph Steiner then took her portfolio with him to Washington, to Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration. Stryker was impressed, asked to meet her. So, armed with letters of recommendation from no less than Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner, friends from the Photo League, Marion Post set off for Washington. She was hired immediately, and joined the ranks of the other FSA photographers.
Wolcott’s work was noted for its deep involvement with her subjects. She didn’t just photograph them, she interacted, going so far as picking beans with her subjects, changing their kids’ diapers, and washing their faces. Her subjects liked her and they knew she cared; they thought that maybe she could, help. Marion Post Wolcott was an activist as well as a photographer, a stance that in later generations came to be known as The Concerned Photographer.
In the last days of her life, Wolcott had major retrospective exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the International Center of Photography in New York City. She also received many prestigious awards, including the Oakland Museum’s Dorothea Lange Award, the Society of Photographic Educator’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Press Photographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
Marion Post Wolcott died November 24, 1990, in Santa Barbara, California. She was known for being supportive of young upcoming photographers, always encouraging them to use their work in meaningful ways.
Her work, less known than other FSA photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, is increasingly recognized as some of the strongest of the era. If not iconographic of the Depression era, in retrospect, her work is some of the deepest and most personal.