MARION POST WOOLCOTT
MISSISSIPPI DELTA - IN COLOR (1930s)
Marion Post Wolcott is best known for the more than 9,000 photographs she produced for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1938 to 1942.1 This work is preserved at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and also available online. Before Wolcott became a government photographer, she earned her living making photographs for magazines and newspapers. Initially she worked freelance, but, as a staff photojournalist in 1937 and 1938, Wolcott broke gender barriers in the newspaper darkroom. Then she worked for the Farm Security Administration, one of the largest news photography projects in the world. She covered thousands of miles of the United States with her camera to document and publicize the need for federal assistance to those hardest hit by the Great Depression and agricultural blight.
Drawing on her social concerns and her artistic vision to illustrate issues that needed redress, Wolcott produced an extraordinary number of images and her occupation challenged many social morés about the propriety of young women living away from the family home and traveling on their own. Although she worked professionally for only a few years, her artistry and perseverance have inspired many articles, books, and exhibitions and her photographs created a lasting record of American life on the eve of World War II.
On June 7, 1910, Marion was born to Walter and Marion "Nan" Hoyt Post in Montclair, N.J. Her father was a homeopathic physician and conservative while her mother was an ardent activist for progressive causes. (Nan Post toured the country by car, setting up family planning sites for Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.) After their parents' bitter divorce, she and her older sister Helen obtained scholarships to Edgewood, a progressive, coeducational boarding school in Greenwich, Connecticut, where they were encouraged to think for themselves. Marion flourished in the demanding school environment.
Marion and Helen spent weekends and summers in New York City at their mother's Greenwich Village apartment, attending theatrical performances and art exhibitions and associating with her Bohemian friends. From 1927 to 1929 Wolcott studied modern dance and early childhood education at the New School for Social Research and New York University. She paid her way by providing child care and teaching nursery school in Connecticut.2 In the early 1930s she moved to Massachusetts to teach in a small mill town. The class differences she observed, the privileged children of the mill owners she taught by day and the struggling millworkers she saw in the evenings after a long day's work, upset her. When the Depression caused the mill and school to close, she became disillusioned with "the American System."3
When her father died in the spring of 1932, Wolcott used funds from his estate to study dance in Paris and, later, child psychology at the University of Vienna, also attended by her sister. With encouragement from Helen and Helen's photography teacher Gertrude "Trude" Fleischmann, Wolcott tried photography and found that, as Trude said, she "had a good eye."4
Vienna grew increasingly dangerous with the rise of Nazism and Fascism. The sisters' Jewish and anti-Nazi friends had "swastikas burned in front of their homes, and their fields and fences set afire."5 As the situation deteriorated, the apartments of socialist workers were bombed, and Wolcott spent several months working at great risk in local schools to help the newly homeless children. Helen left Europe before the July 1934 attempt by the Nazi Party in Austria to overthrow the government. When the University of Vienna closed because of the tensions, the trustee of her father's estate sent Wolcott a ticket home, but no money, effectively forcing her to return to the United States. She arrived on October 16, and settled with Helen in Port Chester, N.Y.6 The sisters participated in the League Against War and Fascism where Wolcott worked on fund-raising with Ray Malsin who, with his mother, owned Lane Bryant clothing stores. They helped Jewish people, including Trude Fleischmann, immigrate to the United States.
In late 1934, Wolcott moved to Croton-on-Hudson to teach at the progressive Hessian Hills School.7 She made portraits of her students and photographs for the school brochure and also earned to print her own negatives. She went out photographing on her own, as well, making photographs of mine workers in Pittsburgh.
Wolcott attended lectures about photography in New York City at the Photo League which provided instruction in film and photography to reflect the daily lives of ordinary American workers."8 Impressed by Wolcott's work there, Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner invited her to join a group of young photographers who met at Steiner's apartment for informal discussions.9 She developed close friendships with members of the Group Theatre, a small, reality-based drama company begun in New York in 1931. Wrapped in blankets in winter, she commuted in her drafty car between Croton-on-Hudson and the couches of her actors friends on weekends. They became the subjects of her first published photographs, in Stage Magazine.10
In 1936 Wolcott moved back to New York City to become a freelance photographer but jobs were difficult to find. She placed photographs in the prestigious Survey Graphic, PM (a short-lived 1940s New York left-wing daily newspaper) and Stage Magazine and aggressively pedaled story ideas to Parents, Vogue, Woman Today, and Building America.11 She completed and was paid for a Fortune assignment (topic now unknown), but those photographs were never published. Ed Stanley, wire photo chief for the Associated Press, sent assignments her way, as well.
In the summer of 1937, Wolcott went to Tennessee to join Strand and Steiner who had established Frontier Films the year before. Wolcott served as the still photographer for the pro-labor film The People of the Cumberlandswhich they were making with director Elia Kazan.
Wolcott also documented the living conditions of the people in the countryside. Most of those photographs were lost, but one is located in the Frontier Films collection of the Library of Congress and another appeared on the cover of the July 10, 1938, issue of The New York Times Magazine, accompanying an article entitled, "People of the Tennessee Valley."12 The timely magazine story on Sunday heralded the introduction of legislation on Monday to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority which flooded some of the farms to provide electric power to the masses.
When Wolcott returned to New York, she continued to struggle, relying on dinner dates to get at least one meal a day.13 After she told Stanley she might have to give up photography and return to teaching, he helped her obtain a staff position with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
Bulletin editor Wisler Zeamer took a chance on her, but staff was doubtful about hiring a woman photographer and Wolcott had to prove her worth.14 Male photographers urinated in her photography chemicals, threw spitballs at her, and extinguished their cigarettes in her developing trays. Claiming the other staff photographers were "wolves," each of them offered to look out for her.15
After four days, when Wolcott confronted her colleagues, they began to help her complete her assignments, covering fashion news and social events for the ladies page. "They didn't send me out on the blood-and-thunder stuff, of course, but newspaper photography was an invaluable experience for me."16 She learned to work productively on deadline, and she polished her skill at developing negatives.
Newspaper photography was considered such an unusual occupation that after The Evening Bulletin published an article titled "Strange Jobs for Women." Wolcott's occupation and portrait headed the list followed by a dentist, a produce vendor at the Reading Terminal Market, a wallpaper hanger, a cobbler, an oyster opener, a barber, and two sisters who worked as butchers.17
Wolcott was soon bored with her women's beat on the newspaper. Ralph Steiner then showed her portfolio to Roy Stryker, the head of the photography division of the Farm Security Administration, based in Washington, D.C. With recommendations from Steiner, Strand and Ed Stanley, Stryker immediately contacted her for an interview. He hired her on the spot and gave her the first full time FSA appointment offered to a woman. Dorothea Lange had been on staff since 1935, but she worked only part-time and produced far fewer photographs for the agency.
From 1938 to 1942, Wolcott traveled throughout the United States, using her good looks and friendly manner to advantage. On her first FSA assignment, Wolcott went to West Virginia where her mother had distributed family-planning literature. Her mother advised her to do things like observe clothes hanging on the line to better understand the people she wanted to photograph.18
Although Stryker's discomfort with her traveling alone in socially conservative areas is legion, he used Wolcott's attractiveness and social skills to agency advantage. Conflicting agendas between public and private aid organizations and administrators with local rather than national objectives often diminished effectiveness, so he sent her as his diplomat to smooth difficult situations. Stryker sent Wolcott on endless routine assignments that she performed even when she had to work alone on a tight schedule, sometimes driving at night to complete her tasks, despite Stryker's admonitions not to do so.
She had to navigate poorly marked roads, search for safe places to eat and sleep, draft captions, wash and mend her clothes, keep mileage and per diem figures, get her camera and car repaired, and write chatty letters that kept her feeling connected to the Washington, D.C., office and Washington alert to the photographs she was making and her experiences away from the office.
Wolcott's social contacts helped her gain access to juke joints and the freedom to venture into African American neighborhoods and other places she would not have been able to go without introductions and escorts. Her photographs document the benefits of government subsidies to farmers and depict racial interactions and extremes of the country's rich and poor but she also convinced Stryker of the need to include coverage of the upper and middle classes in the Historical Section file.
In April 1939, when Wolcott and Ray Malsin were in Miami Beach at the same time, they went to the home of parents of their friend, Joan Stampleman, whom Wolcott knew through the Group Theatre. Joan used the stage name Joan Madison. In addition, Joan's husband was Abraham Isserman, a lawyer for Frontier Films. Wolcott photographed Joan in the bar of her family home with English Strunsky who was married to Joan's sister Lucy Stampleman Strunsky. These previously thinly identified photographs have intrigued viewers for decades because those and her photographs of the wealthy on the beach are so different from most of the images in the FSA file.19
Despite her dedication and proven abilities, Wolcott never reached the level of camaraderie that some of her male colleagues maintained with Stryker. He rarely granted her the opportunity to fully develop her stories in the systematic manner he so highly prized in Russell Lee's work, for instance. Early in 1940, after Wolcott pointed out that she had worked for two years with hardly a break, Stryker sent her to St. Albans, Vermont, where she photographed for at least a week while staying in his vacation house. She made some of her signature images during that snowy working vacation in New England.
She grabbed a few days in the summer of 1940 to make some of her most heartfelt photos in eastern Kentucky where the local school superintendent traveled with her and even made photos of Wolcott happily at work. Wolcott photographed people while Marie Turner photographed Wolcott at work.
Soon after, Stryker reassigned her to the Western region of the country.
Untitled. [Marion Post photographing mountain children on stone steps of their home. Up Stinking Creek, Pine Mountain, Kentucky, August 1940. Marie Turner, photographer.] *In 1985, Beverly Brannan interviewed James Hogg of Pine Mountain, Kentucky, and Treva Turner, former CRS employee and niece of Marie Turner, who said that Marie Turner had made photographs using Wolcott's camera.
In April or May 1941, Marion Post met Lee Wolcott, assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. Lee was a Brown University graduate and a widower with two small children. They fell passionately in love and married on June 6. Marion Wolcott attempted to continue her career as well as raise her husband's children but, with war rationing of foods, cars, tires, and gasoline, and women shifting from traditional low-wage housekeeping positions to high-paid war work, that plan proved impossible, especially now that she covered the Western United States.
On September 19, 1941, Stryker sent Wolcott an eight-page letter thanking her for some fragrant sagebrush she had sent him from out West and giving her assignments that called for extended time on the road.20 She annotated the letter with comments belittling the significance of the subjects to be photographed and complaining that she had to complete work by John Vachon, another FSA photographer. She then mailed Stryker's letter to her husband Lee whose reply declared that he [Stryker] "should be fired immediately." Lee's reply also underscored Wolcott's sense of being overworked and underappreciated.21 Lee ordered Stryker to have his staff re-label Marion Post's photographs to include her married name, an exercise that took many hours to complete at the expense of other projects and caused further ill will.
Wolcott was forced to choose between husband and boss, between traditional gender expectations and a demanding job. She seems to have struggled less with deciding to risk her life teaching children in besieged Vienna than with deciding what life path to take. Thinking back on her struggle to earn a living and the sparse reinforcement she had received for her work, she felt unsure of continuing as a photographer. Her pictures had received very little attention at the time and she felt justified in thinking her work was underappreciated.
Eager for a sense of belonging to a network of family and friends in the face of the coming war, she left the FSA. She had two children of her own with Lee and helped him operate a "back to nature" farm he bought in Virginia.
Wolcott never photographed professionally again but did not stop making photographs. She gave away portraits of her neighbors and images of farming in rural Virginia. From 1954 until 1959, the Wolcotts lived in Colorado and New Mexico. While Lee worked for the State Department from 1959 to 1968, the family lived in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Egypt. Just prior to a forced evacuation from Egypt during the Seven Days War in 1967, Wolcott destroyed nearly all of her remaining personal archive to save it from capture.
Wolcott and Lee then settled in California, where Wolcott documented the counter-culture. As a docent in photography at the Santa Barbara Museum, she showed her work to the staff who began to exhibit them.
In 1975, New York photo dealer and gallery owner Lee Witkin and California photographers Judy Dater and Jack Welpott located the reclusive Wolcott, sought out her work and exhibited it at Witkins' New York gallery where her photographs gained instant acclaim. She became active in the Santa Barbara and San Francisco art photography communities and, although she had made her mark as a documentarian, she worked to establish her reputation in the rising art collectors market. She borrowed her original FSA negatives from the Library of Congress to supervise the printing of her best-known images along with recent rediscoveries. In the 1980s she donated the archive of her personal papers and photographs to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.
On November 24, 1990, Wolcott died at home in Santa Barbara after battling lung cancer for more than a year.
One of Wolcott's contributions to photojournalism was to maintain the superior quality of her photographs while under the duress of working in socially difficult environments. She is recognized for her independent spirit, hard work, her dedication to social ideals, and her insightful photographic portrait of American life. She showed women that such a life was possible but not easy. She also contributed one hundred-twenty photographs to the color portrait of the United States made when Kodak gave samples of its newly released Kodachrome film to the FSA for experimentation.22 These were not published widely until technology permitted in the later part of the twentieth century.
Wolcott received many awards during her last decade, including the Oakland Museum's Dorothea Lange Award, the Society of Photographic Educator's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Press Photographer's Lifetime Achievement Award.23 In one of her last major speaking engagements, she delivered the keynote address at the 1986 Women in Photography conference at Syracuse University where her photographs were on exhibition. She advised women to find their own voices. "Speak with your images from your heart and your soul," she admonished.24 Poor health prevented her from attending the April 1990 show of her work at the International Center for Photography in New York, months before her death but her images spoke for her and they spoke from her heart.
Wolcott's prints can be found in the permanent collections of most major museums in the United States and have been widely exhibited.