In October 1940 Jack Delano traveled to Aroostook County, Maine, to photograph the potato harvest for the Farm Security Administration. Of all the FSA photographers who worked in color film he was the most prolific and arguably the best.
When the top photo appeared on Flickr , a woman who picked potatoes in Aroostook added a reminiscence in the comments:
Another Flickr commenter thought the boy at right might be crying. The two following detail images are inconclusive but I think his expression could be a smile.I feel so fortunate to have been born and raised in the potato fields of Caribou, Maine. What a wonderful opportunity to learn a good work ethic and earn money for clothes for school. We were never cold and were well dressed at the same time. My dad was the digger and the overseer of the whole operation... he would have to get off of the bus to life [i.e. let] some of the children into the bus. Sometimes he would let the men run over a barrel to build a fire to warm up our toes and fingers while waiting for the hard frost to melt on the ground so that he could dig and we could pick!! Betty Bubar Collins. -- Elizabeth 58
About four basket loads would fill one of the barrels that were strewn around the field. A picker would mark each barrel with a ticket which would be used to calculate earnings. A full barrel earned the picker 12 cents in 1940. An adult picker in an average field could fill 30 or more barrels and a good picker in a field free of rocks could do maybe 100. If they stuck to it, the two boys might split two and a half dollars for their day's work.
You can see from this photo from the Aroostook shoot that at least some farmers still used horses to pull a mechanical digger through their fields.
This detail shows that the digger itself was motorized.
The following pair of images show a Massey-Harris No. 1 Potato Digger. The one at left is motorized. You can tell how it worked in the photo of a non-motorized version at right. The cow-catcher burrowed down under the potatoes and the forward motion of the digger brought them up to the conveyor. As the potatoes moved back along the conveyor the earth and plant debris dropped away and the potatoes dropped off the back.
Delano trained as an artist before he took up documentary photography. This photo from the Aroostook set shows his skill at framing, instinct for positioning the horizon, and expert handling fore-, mid-, and background elements. The photo shows his artistic use of formal design elements — the foreground's diagonal furrows contrasting with diagonal elements that point to a focal point in the group of structures positioned just off center. It also shows also his fine handling of hue — the earth and sky tones balanced against each other on either side of a contrasting band with white highlights. And the barrels and figures on the foreground artificial horizon add greatly to the visual impact of the image. As with all images on this page, click to enlarge.
These two other long shots also show his command of photographic design.
FSA photographers took comparatively few color photos and only a handful of those were taken from the air. All of these color aerials appear in Delano's Aroostook set and are reproduced below. In 1965 Delano commented on the difficulty he faced in getting authorization for them.
JACK DELANO: I think life would have been a lot simpler for Roy [Stryker, Delano's boss]and probably for the rest of us if there had been less stringent insistence, if there had been less insistence, on abiding by the letter of the law in all government procedures that had to be attended to for everything, because this was in a way a kind of unusual project and it needed a little bit of unusual treatment. For example, I found myself up in Aroostook County, Maine and I wanted to get some aerial shots of the great potato fields and this got to be a real serious problem. How did I rent a plane for an hour? Telegraphs back and forth to Roy about what papers to fill out, what forms you need, and what kind of receipt to fill out, and what does the pilot have to sign, and all these things just in order for me to take a plane for an hour.
RICHARD DOUD: Did you manage?
JACK DELANO: Oh yes, I did it. I would have done it anyway and paid it out of my own pocket.
-- Oral history interview with Jack and Irene Delano, 1965 June 12, An interview of Jack and Irene Delano in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, conducted 1965 June 12, by Richard Doud, for the Archives of American Art.
When Aroostook potatoes were graded, the best went for seed potatoes, next were potatoes for cooking, and last potatoes for making starch. Quality controls were stringent and most of the crop might end up in the last category. The 1940 potato crop was one of the biggest ever in the U.S. and Aroostook County was the dominant producer. Starch factories did well that year.
I've marked this outline map of the counties of Maine to show the location where Delano took these color photos.
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs
Oral history interview with Jack and Irene Delano, 1965 June 12, An interview of Jack and Irene Delano in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, conducted 1965 June 12, by Richard Doud, for the Archives of American Art.
RICHARD DOUD: There was no dictation, I mean in this whole business he was simply trying to get you started. He didn't care if you went off on your own and took a different slant?
JACK DELANO: Not at all. On the contrary, he was trying to stimulate you to do that. In some of his letters, which we will show you -- I'm sure we'll find them this afternoon -- he would write in longhand these long letters in which he would work out for you a complete shooting script on what you should be looking for in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania or in Aroostook County, Maine. He would write in great detail about potato-picking, and what kind of shoes do they wear, and what kind of gloves do they wear, and where do they eat and sleep, and do all sorts of other things. But this was primarily a guide for you to open your eyes and be looking for these things. He wouldn't tell you what to photograph at all, ever.
, I found myself up in Aroostook County, Maine and I wanted to get some aerial shots of the great potato fields and this got to be a real serious problem. How did I rent a plane for an hour? Telegraphs back and forth to Roy about what papers to fill out, what forms you need, and what kind of receipt to fill out, and what does the pilot have to sign, and all these things just in order for me to take a plane for an hour.
The Photography of Jack Délano - the Man who Colored the Forties
Potatoes, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture
Extract: "Potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States (not including sweet potatoes), contributing about 15 percent of farm sales receipts for vegetables. Over 50 percent of potato sales are to processors for french fries, chips, dehydrated potatoes, and other potato products; the remainder goes to the fresh market. Although potatoes are grown year round, the fall crop comprises roughly 90 percent of potato production. "
Production of White-Potato Starch
R. H. Treadway, W. W. Howerton, Commercial Potato Production in North America, The Potato Association of America Handbook, Second Revision of American Potato Journal Supplement Volume 57 and USDA Handbook 267 by the Extension Section of The Potato Association of America
Extract: "Aroostook County became a center for production of table-stock and seed potatoes, and the starch industry provided an outlet for the culls. ... In 1940, Aroostook County had 27 starch factories, whose total daily capacity was more than 150 tons of starch. This greatly increased capacity was due mainly to construction of three modern continuous-process plants in 1938 and 1939. ... Starch factories provide an outlet for potatoes that should be kept off the food market in order to make effective the slogan, 'Sell the best—and process the rest.'"
United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Crop Production Historical Track Records, April 2012
Potatoes Annual Summary, National Agricultural Statistics Service
Harvesting Potatoes, text by Richard E. Rand, images from Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum, Presque Isle Historical Society and Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum
Aroostook County, Maine. October, 1940. Aroostook County, one of the largest potato producing centers in the world Photographed by Jack Delano for the Farm Security Administration.
160 photographic prints.
Summary: Photographs show Aroostook County, one of the largest potato producing centers in the world. Aerial views of fields and farms, during harvest season. Tractor and horse drawn diggers. Crews of men, women, and children. Storage barns. Loading railroad cars for shipment. Isolated potato seed foundation farms. FSA community seed program. Demonstration of cutting and planting seed potatoes. Starch factory. Homes and families of French-Canadian farmers. Portraits.
Farms in the Aroostook County, Me., Oct. 1940 : potatoes
Farms in the Aroostook County, Me., Oct. 1940 : potatoes
The Potato Culture of Aroostook County, Maine, USA
Potato country, A local harvest unearthed, by Matthew Bellico, Boston Globe Correspondent, October 5, 2008
Teams And Technology Educating Researching Aroostook County Tubers
Extract: "The history of the Maine potato industry reveals an industry of great change as illustrated by the number of farmers in business in the early 1900's compared to the early 2000's. The report titled, 'Aroostook: Potato Capital of America' states there were over 6,000 farmers devoted to raising potatoes in Aroostook County, Maine around 1930-1940, while another report titled "A Study of the Maine Potato Industry: Its Economic impact 2003" reports only 586 potato farms in Maine in 1997."
About the Maine Potato
Aroostook County, Maine on wikipedia
Aroostook War on wikipedia
Jack Delano on wikipedia
Kodachrome on wikipedia