Here is a "Lens" article from the New York Times that I just wanted to share with my limited fan base
Jack Delano’s American SonataBy DAVID GONZALEZ
Jack Delano’s touchstone as a documentary photographer was Paul Strand’s imperative that one had to have “a real respect for the thing in front of him.” Through his long career – photographing everything from coal miners, sharecroppers, railroad men and Puerto Rican canecutters – he conveyed a deep respect for not just the travails of Everyman, but a true appreciation of the dignity that lay within.
“To do justice to the subject has always been my main concern,” he wrote in his autobiography “Photographic Memories,” which was published by the Smithsonian shortly before his death in 1997. “Light, color, texture and so on are, to me, important only as they contribute to the honest portrayal of what is in front of the camera, not as ends in themselves.”
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Delano’s ascension to the storied ranks of the Farm Security Administration photographers in 1940 actually came about after Strand caught his first major exhibit – mural-sized prints of bootleg coal miners in Pennsylvania – and recommended him to Roy Stryker, the administration’s director.
Through coincidence or fate, that work would eventually lead him to Puerto Rico, which not only became his adopted homeland after World War II but also the subject of a vast and impressive archive that chronicled the island’s transformation from agriculture to industry. His work is a secret history that has been in plain sight – its unfamiliarity to the larger world more a testament to mainland provincialism than aesthetic shortcoming.
He was born Jacob Ovcharov in 1914 in Voroshilovka, Ukraine, where his mother was a dentist and his father a Russian and mathematics teacher. The family fled to the United States in 1923 and settled in Philadelphia. Music was his first love – he studied it for years, while his brother Solomon eventually became a professional violinist.
Jack Delano/Library of Congress
He veered off into art after some drawings he had done in a high school club helped him land a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A chance encounter with Irene Esser, a raven-haired pianist who was playing Beethoven’s “Apassionata” Sonta tuned into lifelong romance and partnership. During a beer-soaked party, his classmates urged him to adopt an American surname, and one offered up her own – Delano. The Jack had come earlier – in honor of the boxer Jack Dempsey.
A more radical change awaited him when he won a four-month traveling fellowship to Europe, where he not only was influenced by the works of Van Gogh, Breguels and Goya, but by his purchase of a tourist-friendly camera. Upon his return, he felt his original goal of becoming a magazine illustrator seemed “cheap and tawdry, and he aspired to do something greater through photography.
“I thought the camera could be a means of communicating how I felt about the problems facing the country and that therefore I could perhaps influence the course of events,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I thought I could portray ordinary working people in photographs with the same compassion and understanding that Van Gogh had shown for the peasants of Holland with pencil and paintbrush.”
That impulse led him to do his photographs of miners whose rough and short lives were spent working veins of coal as exhausted as they themselves were. He spent a month living among them, finding himself doing the kind of documentary work that could – he thought and hoped – might bring him into the Farm Security Administration, a group whose work had had “a profound impact” on him as art that had social impact. He wrote Stryker in search of a job, and despite an initial setback – no openings were available – was hired in 1940.
Library of Congress
“I was so nervous and excited by the opportunity to get these pictures that I blocked out all my personal feelings,” he wrote. “It was only afterward, relaxing back in my hotel room, that the realization of what I had witnessed came upon me. The butter irony of striped prison attire combined with song and dance seemed almost surrealistic. How humiliating it must have been for these men to be obliged to perform for me, as if they were trained animals! The idea that they had been ordered to put on a show for the photographer was abhorrent.”
Stryker had often sent detailed notes – shooting scripts – about what he wanted documented and how. That would take a drastic turn in 1941, when the talents of the Farm Security Administration photographers were redirected into the war effort.
“You will keep this ever in mind,” Stryker advised them. “Lots of food, strong husky Americans, machinery, show it as big and powerful, good highways, spaciousness. Also watch for such things as good schools, freedom of education, church services, meetings of all kinds. … Watch out for particularly important nationality groups, particularly in the rural areas. Scandinavians, Swiss, Portuguese, Spanish showing community life, close-ups of people and activities. These will be most useful.”
Not that he was averse to giving direction himself: given authority to order the engineer to stop if he thought of a particularly striking scene or composition, he did just that while riding a mile long freight train in Nevada. When he hopped off and saw the train wasn’t in the exact position he had hoped for.
“So I shouted to the engineer, ‘Move her up just a little bit,’” he wrote. “Again heard the clackety-clack of each car of the mile-long train begin to inch forward. Never had I had such a sense of power! I felt like Hercules.”
Despite that power, he also realized there would be moments and moods the camera would not capture. A diary entry that he titled “Things I cannot photograph” ended thusly:
A train is approaching us!
The glare of the headlight
With a WHOOSH of thunder as it flies by us.
The brakeman gets down from the cupola and watches it go by
Two red lights and a white one pass us
The white one waves up and down.
Then back again to the drone
I throw a cigarette out of the window
It whirls off in the backwash scattering sparks wildly like fireworks
The blackness again.