Wednesday, May 29, 2013

August, 1942, New York

Half a year after the U.S. declared war on Japan and Germany, Marjory Collins documented daily lives of New Yorkers in photographs taken for the Office of War Information. She had joined the OWI photographic unit as it transitioned from Depression-era service within the Farm Security Administration into a relatively minor component of military strategy to defeat the Axis powers. Under Joseph Goebbels the German propaganda machine was well-heeled and effective. The U.S. Government had less faith in this form of psychological warfare and was far from single-minded in its commitment to it. Within the country, the Domestic Branch of the OWI was, by design, severely restricted in its operations.[1] The Overseas Branch, in which Collins worked, was initially hampered by resistance from military leaders whose training did not lead them to see its potential value and, like the Domestic Branch but to a lesser extent, it was attacked by President Roosevelt's political opponents.[2] An article in the issue of Life magazine for March 22, 1943, told its readers that the Axis powers had "perfected great, intricate, and effective propaganda machines" while Americans, "although they are the world's masters of advertising and publicity," had been slow to master this "necessary weapon of political warfare."[3]

The Overseas Branch never matched the high production values of German propaganda and aimed instead for a level of transparent honesty to carry its message. It attempted to contrast what was then known as the American way of life with life under the authoritarian regimes of its enemies. OWI director Elmer Davis said the Overseas Branch would tell the world "that we are coming, that we are going to win, and that in the long run everybody will be better off because we won."[4] An Overseas Branch communication explained one aspect of this goal: "As the long-range directive implies, one of our chief duties is to convince people of the world of the 'overwhelming power and good faith of this country'. By informing peoples of other countries fully concerning the nature of this country and of its people, sympathy, trust and friendliness will grow".[5]

The Overseas Branch targeted people in the homelands and occupied territories of its enemies and also the citizens of allied countries and newly liberated ones. Its broadcasts and publications gave a view of America that was diametrically opposed to the propaganda with which the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda flooded Europe, but it did not do so in a blatantly propagandistic manner. To the contrary, for the most part it showed the United States as a complex society, rich in cultural variety. Rather than ignoring or denying the existence of racism, poverty, and sexual inequality, it tended to depict members of minority groups, people who were destitute, and women in the workplace as having a pluck and determination which, while not overcoming the unjust treatment they received, showed them to have a strength of character which typified the best of the American Way.[6]

In addition to films, broadcasts, and books, the Overseas Branch published photo pamphlets and magazines. One of the magazines, called Victory, was modeled after Life (and its Nazi counterpart, Signal) in editions for the UK and other allies and re-conquered European countries. Comparing Victory to Signal, the author of the article in Life wrote:
The Chief U.S. foreign propaganda magazine Victory, over which a Congressional economy storm blew up last month, is but a pallid imitation of the German Signal. Victory has less than half the circulation of Signal, contains no terrific propaganda sock like its Nazi counterpart. The reason for this difference in wallop can be seen in ... examples of U.S. ... and Axis propaganda... The OWI sticks to facts, shuns exaggerations, tries to bring the peoples of the world messages about our leaders, our war aims, our growing armed might. The Axis harangues, scoffs, falsifies, attempts to divide.[7]
The article gave these two sets of examples to show the difference in the quality of U.S. and enemy propaganda. At left American; at right Axis.

Here are representative covers of Victory and Signal from 1942-1945.

The Photographic Unit to which Marjory Collins belonged produced images for Victory and other Overseas Branch publications. In carrying out this work her boss, Roy Stryker, assigned her to document the everyday aspects of life. Where other OWI photographers would cover mobilization and show America's industrial might, she recorded street scenes, ordinary home life, and festive occasions. In keeping with Stryker's approach to photography of the Depression and New Deal era these photos are not self-consciously inspirational but show strength through diversity and a steadfast dedication to the pursuit, if not anywhere near complete attainment, of democratic ideals.

There were critics of the Overseas Branch who maintained that photos showing the daily lives of ordinary Americans would alienate Europeans whose lives had been much more greatly disrupted by war. It was said Americans would seem pampered, arrogant, and unsympathetic. Other critics said the Overseas Branch photos would seem to confirm enemy propaganda if they showed the seamy underside of American culture. OWI's photographers evaded both these perils by showing that American culture was too diverse to be unattainably well-to-do and by deploying images of the "seamy-underside" without bitterness or despair.

Collins was particularly good at showing all stripes of Americans, including those whose standard of living was low and life challenges correspondingly high. Her shots of New York City in August, 1942, show Americans in immigrant neighborhoods — Italian Americans, as I showed in a recent post, as well as Jews and Chinese. They also show civilians mingling with military personnel: waiting for trains in Pennsylvania station and knocking back a few in local bars. Her subjects are hardly uniformly prosperous or free from care and one image shows workers at the lowest end of the scale: pin boys at a bowling alley. There's nothing gung-ho about the images but their underlying message is not pacific. Rather than a slick patriotism, they imply that Americans, in all their diversity, had adapted to war mobilization and were carrying on with their lives. They tend to show the strength of the home front — its cheerful optimism and quiet determination — as underpinning for America's massive military effort.

Here are some representative photos from the many that Marjory Collins took for the Overseas Branch of OWI in New York City, August, 1942. All come from collections in the Library of Congress.

The photos show the unglamorous ordinariness of daily life, but they're not casual snapshots. Collins chose her subjects and managed her compositions with considerable skill. The long shots rarely have a single subject and the subjects balance the composition nicely. Her technical expertise shows particularly in the photos where she used single-source flash. Except where flash is used for fill lighting, these images lack much sense of depth and Collins used this two-dimensionalness to advantage. She also broke the cardinal rule of flash photography by allowing the flash itself to be part of the image. It's clear from the frequency with which she did this that it was intended; she wanted the viewer to aware of her presence on the other side of the lens.

{Caption: Jewish printer in a small shop on Broom Street}

{Caption: Jewish weaving shop on Broom Street}

{Caption: Sidewalk merchant in the Jewish section}

{Caption: Fish store in the Jewish section}

{Caption: Fish store in the Jewish section}

{Caption: Chinaman counting on an abacus in a Chinese grocery store in Chinatown}

{Caption: Chinese-American girl playing hopscotch with American friends outside her home in Flatbush}

{Caption: Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station}



{Caption: Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station}



{Caption: Waiting for the trains at the Pennsylvania railroad Station}

{Caption: Waiting for trains at the Pennsylvania railroad station}


{Caption: Waiting for trains at the Pennsylvania railroad station}

{Caption: Waiting for trains at the Pennsylvania railroad station}




{Caption: Waiting for trains at the Pennsylvania railroad station}

{Caption: Irish-American bartender serving beer to British sailors in a Third Avenue bar in the "Forties"}

{Caption: O'Reilly's bar on Third Avenue in the "Fifties"}

{Caption: Boys who pick up pins and roll back balls in a Broadway bowling alley playing cards between shifts}



[1] American citizens and their political leaders viewed domestic propaganda as undemocratic. Republican politicians also feared that the president would use its power as an electoral weapon and southern Democrats feared that it would undermine racial segregation in the Jim Crow states. Encyclopedia of twentieth-century photography, Volume 1 edited by Lynne Warren (CRC Press, 2006); Books As Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets by John Hench (Cornell University Press, 2010)

[2] LIFE (magazine), March 22, 1943, Vol. 14, No. 12 (Chicago, Ill., Time Inc)

[3] Books As Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets by John Hench (Cornell University Press, 2010)

[4] Same source

[5] Interpreting National Identity in Time of War: Competing Views in U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) Photography, 1940-1945

[6] This was in line with an Executive Order that President Roosevelt issued on June 25, 1941, for full participation of people of every race, creed, color, and national origin in the national defense program. -- Marjory Collins (1912-1985), a Biographical Essay, by Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2009. Last revised: April 2009. The OWI showed resilience in the face of adversity as the Farm Services Administration done the during the Depression years. However both agencies had to avoid alienating powerful interests that opposed government measures aimed at ameliorating racism, poverty, and sexual inequality. They focussed on victims, not predators, and their audiences must perforce infer the one from the other.

[7] LIFE (magazine), March 22, 1943, Vol. 14, No. 12 (Chicago, Ill., Time Inc)


Some sources:

Preparing for Victory. The U.S. Office of War Information Overseas Branch’s illustrated magazines in the Netherlands and the foundations for the American Century, 1944-1945 by Marja Roholl in European Journal of American Studies, European Association for American Studies, Special issue, 2012, Wars and New Beginnings in American History, Document 10

Office of War Information in Encyclopedia of twentieth-century photography: A-F : index, Volume 1 edited by Lynne Warren (CRC Press, 2006)

Books As Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II by John Hench (Cornell University Press, 2010)

The Office of War Information on the Library of Congress web site

United States Office of War Information on Wikipedia

WWII Propaganda by Allison Christensen, Lens of War Magazine

World War II Era Propaganda and American Literati, Liberal Interventionism Revisited: American Freedom as Soft Propaganda, by Jonathan Vincent on

Marjory Collins; Women Photographers of the FSA and OWI by Sharon Rodriguez on

Marjory Collins (1912-1985), a Biographical Essay, by Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2009. Last revised: April 2009.

LIFE (magazine), March 22, 1943, Vol. 14, No. 12 (Chicago, Ill., Time Inc)

Davis Riddle Taber Attach on Overseas Pamphlets; Take Little Shipping Space; Not Circulated in U.S.A. by Gordon H. Cole in PM (newspaper, New York) March 7, 1943.

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