Friday, December 03, 2010

Louise Rosskam

Here are some photos by Louise Rosskam. She took them as an employee of the Farm Security Administration in the early 1940s. You can find them in collections of the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. She took them in one small area of Washington DC's southwestern quadrant and they probably all came from the same day's shooting: They are all found together in the FSA collections at LC and the light differs little from one to the next. Most were taken with the sun behind the camera and from the shadows it's apparent some were taken before noon and some after. From context it's apparent the day was a warm one. The foliage shows that it's autumn, but shadows are not especially long, so it's probably September. LC's curator writes that the year is either 1941 or 1942. The objects that appear in windows — Blue Star Service Banners and posters of Axis war leaders — suggest the latter year is correct.[1]

Like other FSA photographers, particularly the women, Louise Rosskam had no professional training in the craft. Before taking up the camera she put in long hours as production assistant to her husband, Edwin Rosskam, who had studied art and taken up photography in the Paris of the 1920s. Although her daughter would later say she submerged her own creative energies in service to his career, she believed her partnership with him was balanced and mutually beneficial. During her few years with the FSA she was in fact the more creative of the two since his FSA job was as editor and hers as photographer. Her main assignments for FSA were in Vermont and Puerto Rico as well as these from Washington DC. In them, she showed skill in both composition and handling of light in the making of highly effective black and white and color images. Particularly drawn to shots that included children, she successfully avoided the clichés of that genre when shooting them.

She also had a knack for revealing subtle interactions among her human subjects. She seems to reveal subtle tensions as people of different races appear careful to ignore each others' existence. She said she empathised strongly with the difficulties faced by poor slum-dwellers during those transition years from Depression to war economy. In a 1965 interview Rosskam said that taking the DC photographs was a very emotional experience for her. She said she'd known abstractly about poverty and the collective sufferings of the urban underclass, but never spoken with people who lived in places like the row houses and alley dwellings of DC's south-west quadrant; she found, in her camera work, that the inhabitants of the city's slum neighborhoods became real to her and she discovered that her previous understanding of the lives they led had been a superficial one. She said the experience "became part of her" — something "completely different" that she couldn't turn her back on and that she felt she had to express, creatively, with her camera. She said "when I got a camera into my hands, I know that I wanted to take a nicely balanced picture, with a theme, you know, but I wanted people to understand what that woman holding her child, without enough to eat, felt."[2]

As in much of Washington DC, the area southwest of the Capitol was then a hodge podge of rich and poor. Houses for low income tenants were clustered close to the river in the vicinity of the intersection of Union and N Streets where Rosskam took these images.[3] Within a block or even just across the street you could find upscale dwellings and even a couple of mansions. As in most US cities, DC's housing was racially segregated, but in the southwest waterfront area the lines of separation were indistinctly drawn and, as you can see in these photos, people of European and African ancestry encountered (though they apparently ignored) one another on streets and sidewalks.

1. There are many interesting details in the first photo. You can tell by the light that it's early afternoon. Rosskam is facing north, the Potomac river is at her left elbow. These buildings show their low-income status by their flat fronts. More expensive ones had distinctive bay fronts jutting out toward the sidewalk. In two windows you can see Blue Star Service Banners, a single on left, denoting one member of the immediate family in military service, and double on right, denoting two of them.[4] The family scene Rosskam captures at the left-side doorway appears to have its own story-line: a young son discussing comic books with mom while a daughter, even younger, exists as if suspended in her own little world of thought. From the ages of the two children, it's likely that the blue star symbolizes a husband and father, rather than another son, is off on military duty.

There are signs of dilapidation but iron stoops are surprisingly decorative and well maintained. The narrow passage leading to the back yard shows the building to be only two rooms deep. Its white painted arch is distinctive and its flagstone paving is swept clean. Although the windows lack screens, no longer have their original shutters, and are in need of repair, they boast lace curtains and one has some potted plants.[5]

{Children on row house steps, Washington, D.C., ca. 1942}

In this detail you see the Blue Star Banner on left and another sign whose contents I can't make out. It has a number 10 and what may be a percent sign and words something like "we're going to be ready" .

Here's a close-up of the two-star banner at right.

2. This photo shows a similar building. Here you can tell the row houses in this neighborhood are only two rooms deep. The shanty-constructed add-ons give a little extra living space. Since the alley enters the street here, there's no need for a passageway between the two units.[6] You can see the top of a high-rise building through the tree branches to the right of the add-on. It should be possible to identify this building. It may be the old Procurement Division of the Department of the Treasury on D Street, SW (see map below).

I believe the white-painted house which is partially on view at left is the
Thomas Law House , which, unlike almost all the neighborhood's row houses, is still standing.[7]

{House in Washington, D.C., ca. 1942}

3. Here are more row houses in the same neighborhood, two pair of them having the same sort of passageway as the first. This part of the block is trending upward. These houses are all well-kept and the one at left is both larger and somewhat more luxurious. It's also significant that the gent walking home is white-collared and quite nicely dressed. I think Shulman's — shown directly below — is out of view just a house of two to the right of this image.

{Row houses, corner of N and Union Streets S.W., Washington, D.C., ca. 1942}

4. Here is Shulman's Market on N St. at Union. It shows another contemplative girl with head bowed, but in this one there's also an inquisitive boy of about the same age. I wonder what's in the girl's hands and I think he does too. Shulman's was a small local chain of groceries.[8] The "wanted" style posters show Axis leaders Mussolini, Hitler and Admiral Yamamoto, each having text at bottom which asks "What do YOU say America?"[9]

{Shulman's market, on N at Union Street S.W., Washington, D.C., ca. 1941}


5. Another photo of Shulman's. A Shorpy commenter says the car is a 1931 Chevrolet. Notice that someone, presumably the window soaper, has soaped the glass and written the words "Nuts" and "Mush" on the door.

{Shulman's Market at the southeast corner of N Street and Union Street S.W., Washington, D.C., with a 1931 Chevrolet car parked in front, ca. 1941}

I thought at first the girl at right was observing the two girls at left sharing a secret, but, as this close-up shows, both she and the boy are looking back into the shop.

6. This photo was taken with the sun at the right hand of the camera and presumably this means the shops are located on Union St. around the corner from N St. Notice that the clothing merchant, A. Peterman, has adjusted his drop cloth so that the sun cannot fade the fabric of items on display in the windows. The man standing out front, possibly Mr. Peterman himself, is informally dressed, as is probably suitable for a down-market merchant. Still, he does have indicators of prosperity: a cigar, finger rings, a wrist watch, and shiny shoes. The barber shop seems to be operated by a man named J. Marucci, though the second "c" is missing from his name, along with part of the "S" in the word shop. There's a short-wave radio antenna on top of this building with its wire traveling up into the tree above. The figure of the boy is blurred not because he's moving quickly but because the large Kodachrome transparencies had high resolution but low light sensitivity. Even in bright light, shutter speeds were fairly slow.

{Laundry, barbershop and store, Washington, D.C., ca. 1941}

The house to the left is quite fancy. Note the window treatment behind the forked tree trunk in this detail.

7. From the direction of shadows, it seems we're still on Union St. As you see, five boys are having a discussion which probably has something to do with the football one of them has in hand. The girl a right is walking a dog.

{Children in street, N and Union Streets S.W., Washington, D.C., ca. 1941}

While in most of the other photos the two races seem to ignore one another, in this one the girl is openly observing what the boys are doing.

8. The LC caption doesn't attribute this one to Louise Rosskam, but it's found in her DC photo set and it was pretty obviously taken at the same time, who else but by her? It's interesting that this is the only instance where human subjects seem aware of the camera that's pointed their way. This unique aspects suggests to me that, unlike the others, this one was at least informally posed. The window shades are the dark green blackout blinds, another indication that this is 1942 and not 1941.[10]

{Children aiming sticks as guns, lined up against a brick building, Washington, D.C., ca. 1942}

9. Although the LC caption says this might show a school, that's unlikely since a school would probably not have a service star banner with only one blue star on it and would almost certainly not have a small, wall-mounted mail box. Note the sign showing that this is an Air Raid Warden Sector Post.

{Row house or school(?), Washington, D.C., ca. 1942}



This is a detail from an oil company street map showing the south-west quadrant of Washington DC in 1942. I've marked it to show the area in which Louise Rosskam photographed that warm September day.

{source: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress}

This detail of a smaller area of south-west DC shows the Thomas Law House (labeled "Elizabeth Custis lived here") and a place called Wheat Row which is labeled on the map as "First row houses in city, erected 1793." The four houses in question were built in 1794 and are, indeed, said to be the first row houses in DC. Amazingly, though the rest of the area's buildings have been almost entirely replaced, these remain standing.[11]

Click here to access this map in full.

This map shows the waterfront of southwest DC today. I've marked it to show N & Union Streets where the photos were taken.

{DC Waterfront Today from wikitravel}

This is intended to show the waterfront once redevelopment is completed.

{source: plan for revitalization of the Southwest Waterfront by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects}


Portrait of Louise Rosskam

{(I neglected to record my source)}


A bonus photo by Louise Rosskam. This comes from her assignment in Vermont.

{One-room schoolhouse closed for the summer. Bristol Notch, Vermont, 1940 July}


Some sources:

Edwin Rosskam, 81, Is Dead

Rosskam, Louise, 1910- photographer

Rosskam, Edwin, 1903- photographer

Louise Rosskam, Photographer

Interview with Louise Rosskam, by Gary Saretzky

Interview with Edwin and Louise Rosskam conducted by Richard Doud at their home in Roosevelt, New Jersey, August 3, 1965

A Life in Photography: Louise Rosskam and the Documentary Tradition

Looking back at Vermont: Farm Security Administration photographs, 1936-1942, by Nancy Price Graff (Middlebury College Museum of Art, 2002)

Towboat river by Edwin Rosskam, Louise Rosskam (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948)

Tracking the Speculators by Bob Arnebeck

AIA guide to the architecture of Washington by Gerard Martin Moeller and Christopher Weeks (American Institute of Architects, JHU Press, 2006)

Southwest Waterfront, Washington, DC

Quadrants of Washington, D.C. on wikipedia

Thomas Law House

Elizabeth Parke Custis Law

Tracking the Speculators, Wheat Row, by Bob Arnebeck



[1] Dave, on the Shorpy blog, agrees.

[2] Interview with Edwin and Louise Rosskam conducted by Richard Doud at their home in Roosevelt, New Jersey, August 3, 1965. Here are some excerpts from this interview:

a) On museum, gallery, and other exhibits for which the FSA provided photographs:
LOUISE ROSSKAM: Oh, I remember the tone of the exhibits was very, very effective. Like the tone of a whole organization that there would be a group of pictures that would-as they said-stated the problem, but stating the problem was a very emotional thing because-like what happened to me when we first went to Washington, and got involved in this. We moved into an area of Washington that looked very nice and I've never, you know, I could have passed 10,000 alley dwellings and never seen them, but once the pictures were made or we went into the arena-to actually-with a camera. We had to-with a camera it means you have to talk to the people and you suddenly see an alley dwelling. There it is, these people are alive and living in it, it becomes something completely different. It's there and you-it becomes part of you and you can't run away from it any more once you are actually faced with it. And the next best thing to that is seeing it in a photograph. And then, of course they tried to show what the Farm Security Administration was doing about this, and showing projects and whatnot, so that you got a sort of feeling that something was doing done about all of this and you were affective in it, which made you very enthusiastic and you wanted to do more and more. But, I'm sure that many people who saw these exhibits never had a concept of what on earth was going on in this country, because even the photographers, who were mostly middle class to wealthy people, and I am sure never would have taken a camera and turned it on these subjects ordinarily, since this was the thing that was assigned to them, that they began to get involved in, they started to open up a whole vista to themselves.
b) On documentary photography:
LOUISE ROSSKAM: Well, the thing that I feel about it-I agree with [Edwin] basically, but I do think that the very fact of wanting to take a photograph, or be urged by somebody, or be urged by somebody like Roy [Stryker, FSA's boss] to take a photograph, like in the case of a person-I was never one of the photographers, but-I took lots of pictures and then afterward with the impetus of Roy's stimulation, I went on to be a photographer, and I don't think you would ever think of taking the photograph to begin with if this creative process weren't stimulated in you. As I said about the alley dwellings and later on other things, that seeing just the unseeable that were absolutely not there, suddenly were there, had to be expressed-or I don't know, I don't want to even say expressed, had to be shared with all the other people in the world you know. If you saw the-this is what the effect Roy's outfit had on me personally, because I just came in there as absolutely nothing, just-I mean I was married to Edwin and trotted around, you know. But gradually as I began to see these things and feel them really, I had to react to them so that other people would feel them and see them too. And when I got a camera into my hands, I know that I wanted to take a nicely balanced picture, with a theme, you know, but I wanted people to understand what that woman holding her child, without enough to eat, felt; and therefore I waited till I took the picture-till, the ultimate of her emotions seemed to show, and then quickly got a picture. Well, now that is true I didn't have a canvas and painted it, but in myself the reaction was going on that would have gone if I had known how to paint. I think. But I wanted to feel that, and get other people to feel it, and that's the basic effect the whole Farm Security experience had on me, because I never saw any of these things before, and I'm sure the American public didn't see them. Certainly the ones sitting in New York would never have known the emotion of a coal-mining town where Marion for instance was photographing if she hadn't recorded that horrible gray, grim, dingy place with those people sitting around and dogs starving and what not, you know. It never would have been seen. And that's the thing that-
c) On team-spirit within the FSA photography unit:
LOUISE ROSSKAM: Well there was a great deal in the family of-we always used to call ourselves "Roy and Alice's babies", you know, because-


LOUISE ROSSKAM: I did.(laughter) Well there was some-

EDWIN ROSSKAM: I did not! (laughter)

LOUISE ROSSKAM: --something in the quality of the comradeship in that group of people that always will-every once in a while, Alice [Roy's wife] would (laugh)-have us all over for some of her apple pies you know, and everybody would get together and there was a great deal of feeling of unity among the group of photographers and their wives, and Roy and Alice. And I remember that particularly, since I wasn't a photographer, there was a general-closeness with all-every once in a while Roy would treat everybody like a bad child, you know, if he didn't write his captions or didn't send his pictures or he got balled up somewhere along the line. In fact, it was really like "papa" and, of course, Edwin was a little on the side of this because he was an editor and not a photographer. But the gang of photographers wherever they were around the country would have this feeling of, you know, the country would have this feeling of, you know, "part-of-the-family" all launched on this project and when everybody got together, it was a lot of fun and you just never lost the feeling of, this group of people are doing this job. And nobody else-it really was a club, nobody else was in it-and every once in a while everyone was under fire, because they thought the government was wasting money or something, or everybody was being praised and written-an article would be written about them-and-but it was always everybody, the group of people that were working together.
d) On Roy's unusual method of discussing assignments with photographers:
LOUISE ROSSKAM: Roy was entirely different. I had this experience because I couldn't resist getting a camera and once I took a vacation in Vermont, and I said to Roy, "Could I take some pictures for you?" you know, "I'll but my own film and everything." And he said, "Oh, here's some film," and then he starts rambling along about Vermont and really it didn't sound as if it had anything to do with what you wanted to do at all. You started talking about hills, farmhouses and how people build a little extension on the house for the old people, and about pickled limes, the sky and how to get to Vermont 50 years ago, you know; by the time you got through listening to him ramble along, you begin to get some sort of formation in your mind of what there was up there so that when you get out there (phone rings)-

LOUISE ROSSKAM: (continues after phone conversation) But I'm sure that everybody sitting around, listening to Roy ramble, as it seemed, began to get his mind turned in the direction to be open to a lot of things that ordinarily he wouldn't perceive when he got to a place.
[3] The wikipedia article on this area is instructive. It says in part,
After the Civil War, the Southwest Waterfront became a neighborhood for the poorer classes of Washingtonians. The neighborhood was divided in half by Fourth Street SW, then known as 4 1/2 Street; Scotch, Irish, German, and eastern European immigrants lived west of 4 1/2 Street, while freed blacks lived to the east. Each half was centered around religious establishments: St. Dominic's Catholic Church and Temple Beth Israel on the west, and Friendship Baptist Church on the east. (Also, each half of the neighborhood was the childhood home of a future American musical star — the first home of Al Jolson after his family emigrated from what is now Lithuania was on 4 1/2 Street, and Marvin Gaye was born in a tenement on First Street.) -- Quadrants of Washington, D.C. on wikipedia
Note: I did a post about Jolson's DC roots awhile back: Jolsons in DC, 1927.

[4] These houses on Capitol Hill have distinctive bay fronts:

[5] Note also the small mail boxes, interesting brick work over windows and doors, the screen doors with spring hinges, and presence of transoms. The sticks in upper windows are needed because their weight-holding ropes have broken. The white spots on brickwork over tunnel undoubtedly come from the ubiquitous "pinkies" that kids of that time used for stickball games.

[6] Some other details: The windows still have most of their shutters. Oddly, the one by the wood-sided addition retains only the right-hand one. Like the other row house, this has its front painted brick red. There are half-screens on some windows and one screen door. The lower windows have Venetian blinds. One of the iron stoops has apparently rusted out and been replaced by wooden steps. There's a dilapidated Adirondack-style wood bench in front. The shack to right has a stove in it. The location seems to be the west end of N St. SW. The intersection with Union St. is to the photographer's right.

[7] According to wikipedia, the Thomas Law House was designed in 1796 by William Lovering and first inhabited that year by Thomas Law and Elizabeth Parke Custis, oldest Granddaughter of Martha Washington. See "Some sources," above, for more information on this place. Here are two of many available photos of it.

{source: wikipedia}


[8] Notice also flag decal in window, the lace curtains and window shades, and the empty milk bottles.

[9] When this photo was shown on the Shorpy blog, a commenter wrote that Hitler is quoted as saying "We shall soon have our Storm Troopers in America!", while Yamamoto says "I am looking forward to dictating peace to the United States in the White House at Washington.", and Mussolini, "We consider peace a catastrophe for human civilization."

[10] Another reason this photo set would have been taken in 1942 rather than 1941: the bicycle has no tires or tubes. Rubber was a war commodity in short supply. About this photo a commenter wrote on the Shorpy blog: "I was raised in a row house in Jamaica, Queens, Long Island in the early 40's, I'm 68 now. The houses were side by side as shown and back to back. If you were lucky each house had a little garden. If you were REALLY lucky, you had an alleyway running the length of the block between the gardens. Usually just wide enough for a one-horse cart or small truck to pick up garbage and coal ash (that's how most everybody heated, unless you were lucky enough to have gas). The garbage and coal ash always came out the basement door in the back of the house (note that there are none in the front of the houses -- we had our pride). So if you didn't have an alleyway, you had to get the garbage and coal ash to the front for pickup. And when they couldn't deliver coal directly to the basement by truck through a window, they had to bag it (100-pounders) and carry it back. I learned several new words from the carriers in several different languages. Got slapped with a wet dishrag (and that HURTS) every time I used one in the presence of my Mother."

[11] Wheat Row today

{source: wikipedia}

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh very neat. There's still a Shulman market in the neighborhood, too, although it's three or four blocks east of there. Ironically, as much as one thinks of the fabric of the neighborhood having been so changed by the construction of the '60s, several blocks of SW, around 1st and Half street SW are entirely rowhouses built in the same year as these photos were taken.