Friday, May 10, 2013

We Must Not Fail Them

In 1942 OWI photographer Marjory Collins worked her way around Manhattan recording the ways of the city's inhabitants in wartime. OWI stands for Office of War Information. Roy Stryker, the leader of its photographic unit, was charged to show the strength of Americans' resolve to defeat foreign aggression. In line with this objective Collins produced upbeat images of women in the workforce, children collecting scrap metal, administrators of newly-formed daycare facilities, and recruits headed out to training camps. She also shot scenes that depict patterns of American life that remained the same despite the massive restructuring brought on by the world war: teens in school, young people at public swimming pools, and adults relaxing in bars and restaurants.

Determined to show "pictures of life as it is," Collins did not limit herself to this one-sided point of view but used her camera to reveal somewhat more diversity in American life. Her photographs capture not just the confident and optimistic can-do citizens shown in the glossy magazines but also what a fellow OWI photographer disparagingly called "the seamy side of life." Subjects included relief clients, Bowery bums and members of struggling minorities. In one of her photo shoots she documented the difficulties faced by a war-widow who struggled to make ends meet and care for her young family. She also showed the daily lives of hyphenated Americans: Chinese-, Turkish-, and Italian-American residents, and, unlike the news reporters of the time, she did not present the inhabitants of immigrant communities as curiosities, but as ordinary people.

The photographs are good. Her technique was excellent and she chose subjects well. She also had fine eye for design and light values, and knew how to make good use of the 6x6 cm. frame which her twin-lens reflex camera gave her.

In the first half of 1942, as a brand new OWI staffer, she was given assignments in and around Washington, DC. In November she spent a week in a small town in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The summer and fall found her in New York City. During this time she took pictures of Chinese Americans in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Jewish merchants in the Lower East Side. She did a set on the customers in a hairdresser's salon. She showed crowds at Radio City Music hall, pin setters at a bowling alley, and patrons of O'Reilly's Bar on Third Avenue in the Fifties. She showed centers for recruiting soldiers and promoting the sale of war bonds. In September she did a lengthy shoot in the building where the New York Times was written and published (about which I've previously written). There are also a few shots of a workers' bookshop which served as Communist Party headquarters.

In mid-August she photographed a parade on Mott Street to celebrate Italian American servicemen. I've selected some of the photos from this occasion. They all can be found in the FSA/OWI collections of LC's Prints and Photos Division. As always, click image to view full size.

The parade is unlike the ones we're used to with clear separation between observers and participants. It has the spontaneity of a summer street festival. Marchers are dressed casually with few attempts at formal uniforms and the leader, dressed as Uncle Sam, is accompanied by some guys in shirt sleeves. Collins was one level above the street when she took this photo, probably on the fire escape. It's interesting that she didn't ask the person next to her to step back in order to clear the camera's view. I suspect she liked having the two out-of-focus foreground elements.

{Caption: Parade of Italian-Americans on Mott Street at a flag raising ceremony in honor of neighborhood boys in the United States Army}

Detail showing the band.

Here you see young people carrying the flag (more of a banner). They're following the band. People are throwing money onto the fabric.

{Caption: Italian-Americans of Mott Street raising a flag in honor of neighborhood boys in the United States Army.}

Now that they've passed by the parked cars you can see more of the banner. Despite its subject it's not really militaristic but has a religious theme — a priest blessing young soldiers whom we know will be going off to fight. The focus is very local. There's no evidence that the event is part of a national campaign. It appears to be of as well as by the two blocks of Mott Street where it takes place.

{Caption: Flag raising ceremony in the rain in honor of Mott Street boys in the United States Army}

Collins was in 274 Mott St. Now she's crossed to 279, on the west side of the street, to get this next shot. The parade has passed down the block and is by the back of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. The church faces Mulberry at Prince and is at the bottom of the parade's route.

In the photo just below the viewer sees the banner's patriotic message. Banners such as this were called flags of honor. As here, they'd be hung over a street, attached to buildings on either side. Street banners were also used to announce municipal events, show support for political candidates, and advertise major shows and festivals. There's a political example from the 1930s here and a municipal one here.

These photos show people watching the raising of the banner.

This one shows that a rain shower has recently passed. You can also see members of a band who are about to play. The couple in the foreground have a quiet dignity.

Collins took another photo of this couple, identifying them as a shoemaker and his wife. It's clear that they're in the doorway to his shop.

Collins' photos tend to have the lens at a child's eye level, as here, because that's the height at which an adult holds a twin-lens reflex camera. It interests me that the shirt of the man at right has a zipper closure. In 1942 zippers were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are now and I suspect they were very rarely seen on a man's shirt.

This detail of hands and face are not the main subject but they make a nice photographic study.

This honor guard seems to have been the only formally military element in the parade and, in keeping with the spirit of the day, its discipline isn't up to parade-ground standards.

{Caption: Italian-American Legionnaries marching in a parade on Mott Street, at the Feast of San Rocco (August 16) which ended in a flag raising ceremony in honor of the boys of the neighborhood who were in the United States Army}

Here you can see the band that was gathering in the background of an earlier photo. They call themselves the "Brooklyn Dodgers" and from the looks of them I'd say they took their name not from the baseball team but from the original sense of the word dodger: cunning, devious, untrustworthy, or, as Dickens had it, artful. It's also possible they took their name from the same source as did the baseball team. Wikipedia says the Brooklyn Dodgers were originally the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, trolley dodger being a slang name for people from Brooklyn.

{Caption: Dancing and music on Mott Street, at a flag raising ceremony in honor of neighborhood boys in the United States Army}

The is a detail of the previous photo.

Taken only a few minutes apart, these two photos show residents at 274 Mott St.

{This building is directly opposite at 274 Mott St.}

Here are detail images of people viewing the parade from the fire escapes and windows.

One can imagine Collins wishing she had a telephoto lens so as to take close up shots of people observing from their windows. Or so it seems from this shot taken from street level.

After the parade Collins took photos of residents in an espresso shop and on the sidewalk.

{Caption: Italian-American cafe espresso shop on MacDougal Street where coffee and soft drinks are sold. The coffee machine cost one thousand dollars}

{Caption: Italian-Americans on MacDougal Street relaxing on Sunday}

In November 1942 Collins was in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and while there she took this photo of her reflection. In it you can see her camera. It's clearly a twin-lens reflex, probably a Rolleiflex. The photo shows the upper lens as bright and the lower one dark because the upper is transmitting light that is reflected from the bright sky above (it is the view lens). The lower lens is dark because it receives light but (unless the back of the camera is removed) does not transmit it.

{Lititz, Pennsylvania. Self-portrait at a public sale, November 1942}

The lower lens of Collins' has a lens hood like the one in this photo of this Rollei from 1933.

{Standard Rolleiflex Model 6RF, 1933; source: flickr}


Some sources:

United States Office of War Information

Women Photographers of the FSA and OWI: Marjory Collins

Photographs by Marjory Collins, 1944, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute on Facebook

Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985. Papers of Marjory Collins, 1904-1985: A Finding Aid

Marjory Collins in Wikipedia

Marjory Collins (1912-1985), a Biographical Essay on the Library of Congress web site

Marjory Collins (1912-1985), Introduction on the Library of Congress web site

photographs of the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection on the Library of Congress web site

Women Photojournalists Prints & Photographs Division Holdings on the Library of Congress web site

Il viaggio di Marjory Collins in Sicilia. Sabato 31 marzo 2012. Ricordare Palermo. Palermo e la Sicilia durante il fascismo e la seconda guerra mondiale. Presenta una ricca galleria fotografica, sullo sbarco degli Alleati in Sicilia del 10 luglio 1943. (This article says that in July 1943 Collins was using a Rolleiflex twin lens camera.)

St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Wikipedia

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on

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