Thursday, October 14, 2010

coal miner's wife, 1938

On her first shoot for the FSA in September, 1938, Marion Post Wolcott went to Marine, West Virginia, which exists now only as a few houses on Tunnel Hill Road by County Road 7, a couple of miles outside a tiny place called Davy. There, living in abandoned houses and an old store, lived the families of miners who could find no work. And there, Wolcott made this memorable image.

{Wolcott's caption: "Wife of unemployed coal miner, suffering from T.B., living in old company store. Abandoned mining town of Marine, West Virginia." 1938, September. Source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress}

The photo has much in common with ones taken by other FSA photographers, particularly Dorothea Lang. FSA collections have quite a few images of young mothers on the porches of their dilapidated rural homes. Even the somewhat surprising smile and engaging facial expression are not particularly unusual. The FSA photographers were pleasantly surprised to find that poverty did not always grind down its victims. They encountered people whose sense of oppression did not keep them from cooperating among themselves and whose poverty did not remove all hope for betterment; people who showed themselves able to experience moments of contentment, even joy.[1]

However, this photo succeeds not just for showing a refusal to give in to despair, but also for its overtones of sensuality, even glamor. As other women photographers were able to do, Wolcott has overcome the subject's resistance to being made an object of pity and there's an evident rapport between the person behind the camera and the one in front of it. Wolcott has given the woman a pose that reminds one (reminds me anyway) of provocative poses used in fashion photography and, by having her lean forward, has brought out the subject's sensuality, even eroticism.

It's reasonably possible that the woman was, as the image makes it seem, unconscious of her sexual appeal. It seems to me that she's not trying to appear sexy and that her flimsy dress is open at top not for allure but because she's a nursing mother and because it's a hot day. Other photos that Wolcott took at this time, shown below, support this conjecture. The first of them shows that the youngest of her five children and own mother were close by when Wolcott made the woman's portrait. The third, taken inside with flash, suggests that the open-top dress was a convenience for nursing. The second photo gives an indication of the diseases which afflict her. Wolcott took another photo during this session showing the woman holding her fist to her mouth during a tuberculosis fit of coughing.

Years later, Wolcott recalled her subject and the image she made.
This woman had TB. I think she was living in an abandoned store. It was in West Virginia, down near Welch, on that first trip I made for Roy. I can see the road in. I can see her leaning over that railing talking to me. There may have been four or five families living in that store. They were all piled together. She's pretty erotic, isn't she? I probably admired that. I knew immediately I wanted to shoot her. She was so beaten down by life and yet there was all this sexuality in her, not just sexuality but sensuality. I talked to her for a while and then I went on. But I knew I had it. -- quoted in Looking for the light: the hidden life and art of Marion Post Wolcott by Paul Hendrickson (Knopf, 1992)
You can see the preparation for such a high level of creative portraiture in Wolcott's upbringing and previous experience. She was daughter of a highly conventional father and a decidedly unconventional mother. Raised in affluent conditions, she was sent to a progressive boarding school when her parents divorced and later chose to spend her time much more with her bohemian mother in a tiny Greenwich Village flat than at her stuffy father's suburban home. She completed her formal education at the New School for Social Research and NYU and spent a couple of years studying dance in Paris and Vienna. In these environments she mixed with artists, poets, and students; with a radical theater group and with women who struggled to achieve social independence and creative freedom.

Returning to America she tried and quickly abandoned teaching as a career and took up photography when a close friend of her sister's saw that she had a talent for the craft. She was able to find work as a photo-journalist but didn't like being assigned to cover fashion and do "ladies stories."[1] With recommendations from New York photographer friends, she was, in 1938, able to land a position with the FSA.

She liked the government work and appreciated the creative freedom she was given in carrying it out. She also liked being part of a collective effort to expose the hard lives endured by Depression-era American families and to show the benefits of New Deal efforts to make things better for them.

Here are three other photos from Wolcott's visit with the woman and her family.


{Mother, wife and child of unemployed coal miner, Marine, West Virginia, 1938 Sept.; source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress}


{Wife and two children of unemployed mine worker. She has TB and syphilis. They are one of five families living in old abandoned company store in abandoned mining community of Marine, West Virginia, 1938 Sept.; source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress}


{Wife and two children of coal miner. She is sick, has five other children. Marine, West Virginia, 1938 Sept.; source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress}

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This shows four of the woman's five children. Wolcott rejected this one by punching a hole in the negative.


{Untitled reject; source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress}

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This shot shows what there was to see of the hamlet of Marine at that time.

{Carrying water to one of the houses in abandoned mining community, Marine, West Virginia, 1938 Sept.; source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress}

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This is a satellite view of Marine today.

View Larger Map

This shows the nearest village, Davy (A), and Marine (B).

View Larger Map

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Here's another fine portrait by Wolcott. Taken two years later, this one is somewhat less alluring.

{Mountain woman by her home up Stinking Creek, Pine Mountain, Kentucky, 1940 Aug.; source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress}

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My interpretation of Wolcott's photo of the unemployed miner's wife is little different from others I've read with the exception of one over-the-top Marxist-feminist interpretation by Jacqueline Ellis, an associate professor at New Jersey City University. In a book called Silent witnesses: representations of working-class women in the United States, she says the FSA was set up in order to reassure middle-class Americans that the working classes were harmless, that its photographers were required to toe the line in supporting a conservative political perspective, and that its output was a collection of photographs which reflected "traditionally democratic and idealistic American values" and which "often excluded economically and socially marginalized subjects from official representation." Wolcott did not address these assertions directly, but she did contradict them in an oral history exchange conducted in 1965.[3]

Having attacked FSA, Ellis makes some pretty wild claims for Wolcott's "miner's wife" photo:
The photograph was a manifestation of Post Wolcott's feminist impulses. The woman is positioned at the center of the image where her body symbolically dominates the front of the house which as the title states, is owned by the mining company. This emphasis is compounded by the way the wooden rail reframes the woman's body around her exposed breasts and her hip. From this construction, her figure seems to counteract the economic situation that has defined her material circumstances. According to this perspective, Post Wolcott has portrayed the radical power of female sexuality in dialectic opposition to the oppressive force of industrialized capitalism which, in contrast, is logically defined as male.
This is just a bit more than Wolcott herself would claim for the photo and her experience with FSA. In the oral history interview she expressed pride at having served with FSA, having collaborated with the other photographers enjoying considerable artistic freedom over choice of subject and manner of treatment, and having contributed to a literature of what she called "propaganda," that is, a government effort to convince the American public of the existence of extreme poverty and the importance of programs aimed at eliminating it.

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Some sources:

Bibliography of primary and secondary sources on Marion Post Wolcott

There's another short bibliography on the University of Virginia web pages on Wolcott

Silent witnesses: representations of working-class women in the United States by Jacqueline Ellis (Popular Press, 1998)

And see my earlier post on Wolcott for many sources.

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Notes:

[1] Wolcott recalled her surprise at this resilience in an interview conducted many years later. She said of this first FSA assignment in Marine, "I found the people not as apathetic as I had expected they might be. They weren't too beaten down. Of course, many of them were but they were people with hope and some of them still had a little drive, although, of course, their health was so bad it was telling." (quoted from Oral history interview with Marion Post Wolcott, 1965 Jan. 18, conducted by Richard Doud at Artist's Home in Mill Valley, California, January 18, 1965)

[2] Addressing a conference on Women in Photography, she told what her first days on the newspaper were like:
When I took the FSA job, I already had battle scars. I had weathered…the first weeks as a female full-time staff photographer on the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin…The ten male photographers with whom I was to work, immediately put out their cigarette butts in my developer, spit in and hypoed it, probably peed in it; threw spit balls into my cubby-hole darkroom until my aim and speed became better than theirs. Finally, I exploded—telling them I was there to stay…I told them how and when I could be very useful to them, and that I needed their help in return; that they could teach me about a Speed Graphic and how to develop and print for a newspaper, that they could openly use their accustomed language and the four-letter words which I’d heard and used, and would welcome the opportunity to feel free to use them myself, again. That did it; we reached a truce…soon each one confidentially telling me that the others were wolves and he was going to be my protector. -- The Photography of Marion Post Wolcott by Linda Wolcott-Moore
[3] The Ellis quotes are from Silent witnesses: representations of working-class women in the United States by Jacqueline Ellis (Popular Press, 1998). The oral history is Oral history interview with Marion Post Wolcott, 1965 Jan. 18, conducted by Richard Doud at Artist's Home in Mill Valley, California, January 18, 1965)

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