This photo shows a crewmember of a freight train looking out the left side window of a caboose's cupola. It was taken in March 1943 by Jack Delano for the U.S. Office of War Information. The train was on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe system somewhere in western Texas or eastern New Mexico.
The photo is held by the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Although it is unlabeled, its composition and the details it shows are similar to other photos Delano took of trainmen in caboose cupolas during a photo shoot of March 1943 on frieght trains traveling from Chicago to San Bernardino along the AT&SF line. In the files assembled from this shoot the photo is located near photos whose captions give locations in the vicinity of Amarillo, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The trainman's tie and jacket, as well as the fedora he wears with train badge just visible all indicate that his job was conductor. You can see these details a little more clearly in this cropped image. Click this image (and all the others) to view full size.
This photo, taken a few days earlier of a different trainman, gives a full caption. The two images are strikingly similar.
The purpose of these photos was documentary. They and the many other images that Delano captured during his journey south and west aimed to show one aspect of war mobilization — the great strength of the U.S. transportation system. Nonetheless, they are far from being naïve propaganda.
The outline that Delano prepared as part of the OWI request for governmental clearance to undertake the work shows his intention to give "a photographic story of the important role played by the railroads in the national war effort," and to this end he showed the astounding magnitude of U.S. rail freight operations. There are lots of long shots of great rail terminals, huge plants for manufacture and repair of locomotives and rolling stock, and the vast landscape of the American Southwest. But he also showed individuals, men and women whose work enabled this vast system to function.
It's in keeping with the philosophy of the FSA/OWI photographic unit that the thousands of photos in its archives contain no photo-op news-shots of politicians, rail system managers, or other public figures. As Delano's boss, Roy Stryker put it, the units images contained "no record of big people or big events ... and absolutely no celebrities." This down-to-earth approach comes out fully in Delano's AT&SF photos. We see yardmasters, engineers, conductors, brakemen, oilers, and wipers. We see workers in locomotive repair shops, on the tracks, in telegraph rooms, and in switch towers. We see workers of European heritage, American Indians, African Americans, and Mexicans.
During the Depression Era the FSA was well-known for its photos of impoverished Americans. The FSA photographers showed them to have a self-possessed grace and this inherent dignity conveyed to viewers some basis for hoping that the millions who suffered misfortune would not just survive but potentially thrive within a reconstructed economy. When the photographic unit was moved from FSA to OWI there was less need and no mandate to produce compelling images of poverty and individuals' struggles to overcome it. During the war buildup and after Pearl Harbor the photos taken by the photography unit both encouraged and reflected a growing sense of American cohesiveness — people working together to produce the industrial output that would be needed to win the war. The OWI photographers did this, however, without entirely abandoning their earlier point of view. From 1940 onward the photos they took continue to show the great diversity of a people who were considered at the time to be "ordinary" citizens.
The portraits that Delano took of the hundreds of workers he encountered during his assignment with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe demonstrate that he possessed the skill necessary to show the simple human dignity in the "common man" (a phrase, like "ordinary citizen" that was in vogue at the time). He disassembled this collective stereotype into its very specific, individual components. The captions he gave his photos frequently state the job a subject performs and give his or her name and home town and the photos themselves tend to show personal habits through grooming, clothing, and posture. More than that, his photos have a broader aesthetic and cultural value. Delano's understanding of photographic design lifts them above the level of journalism. It's his skill as an artist which leads us now, in examining them, to see that they are something more than documentary artifacts. Delano had to plan his photos. The camera he used most frequently was awkward to use for snapshots. This wasn't really a drawback since it's obvious that he planned his photos carefully, choosing his subject, composition, and camera angle and waiting for the light to be right. It's reasonable to assume he sometimes posed his subjects, or, anyway, asked them to adjust their position to achieve the effect he wished to see.
The FSA/OWI photographers were supposed to make factual images and not to alter them "for effect." During the Dust Bowl years, one of them was criticized for moving a bleached skull to improve his composition, but Delano, and his boss Stryker, understood that there was no fakery involved. A photographer needed to be trusted to show a subject as it actually was in real life, and they lived up to this trust, but they also knew it to be their responsibility to make a photo that was meaningful. Stryker's mentor, Rexford Guy Tugwell, put this objective concretely in a conversation Stryker recalled long afterward. "Roy, a man may have holes in his shoes, and you may see the holes when you take the picture. But maybe your sense of the human being will teach you there's a lot more to that man than the holes in his shoes, and you ought to try and get that idea across." Stryker stated the matter in his own words when, in an interview, he said how wage earners, like the trainmen in Delano's photos, could be photographed in a way that revealed their inherent worth. "They had dignity." he said, "And they sensed this guy [the photographer] could give it to them. Not make them beautiful, not make them look like something they weren't. But he put a dignity into that picture. They responded to him."
Here are some more photos of trainmen in cupolas and a couple of others showing the position of the observation benches within the caboose. All are found in collections of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
This shows the cupola from the outside of the caboose.
From within the caboose, you can see the cupola benches in front of and above the rear door of the caboose.
Here is the caboose interior with the end of one of the cupola benches visible at back.
In viewing all these photos you can tell that Delano had an aesthetic appreciation for the dramatic blocks of light and dark present when trainmen observed the train through the cupola's side windows.
It's apparent that riding in the cupola was something like sitting in the upper deck of a London bus — a place to relax and watch the world go by. I'm suspect Delano was making a joke in saying the bottle contained hot coffee.
This is one of the few shots in which Delano used flash and it's the only one he took from below. Although it suffers the flattening that always occurs with single-source flash photography, it's still interesting in its composition, subject, and point of view.
Here is Delano himself, taken by an unnamed photographer.
I've marked this 1939 AT&SF map to show Delano's route in March 1943.
I've done earlier posts of Delano photos, including one from the March 1943 shoot. Click the Jack Delano label at right to view them. For posts showing other photos from Office of War Information files, click the OWI label.
Outline for a trip aboard a fast freight from Chicago Illinois to San Bernardino, Calif. (3 p.) by Jack Delano, in LOT 12024, Box 1, Clearances, Army, 1942-1943, held by the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress
Letter: Roy Stryker to L.I. McDougle, 1942 October 12 [PDF file, 1 p., 134 kb] LOT 12024, Box 1, Clearances, 1942-1943, held by the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress
Interview with Roy Stryker, conducted by Robert J. Doherty, F. Jack Hurley, Jay M. Kloner, and Carl G. Ryant on the American Suburb X web site
Oral history interview with Jack and Irene Delano, 1965 June 12 conducted by Richard Doud for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art; transcript, 63 pp of a sound recording on 2 tape reels
Jack Delano in wikipedia
Jack Delano in the Museum of Contemporary Photography web site
https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/3145/Jack Delano.pdf?sequence=1 biography, Program of Digital Scholarship, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Documenting America, 1935-1943 by Carl Fleischhauer, Beverly W. Brannan, and Lawrence W. Levine (University of California Press, 1988)
www.lllevin.com/users/LarryLevin3660/docs/ASPP Stryker's America 3-08p21-24.pdf by Larry L. Levin on his own web site
Capturing the faces of railroading Who is Jack Delano? And how did his photography change the way Americans perceived railroading? by John Gruber, December 21, 2009, on the web site of Trains, The Magazine of Railroading
www.archives.gov/atlanta/education/depression-curriculum/section-2.pdf, "This Great Nation Will Endure": Photographs of the Great Depression A Curriculum Guide, National Archives at Atlanta
Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers, 1936-1943 by Robert L. Reid and Larry A. Viskochil (University of Illinois Press, 1989)
A Chicago Hub Railroad of the 1930's - 1940's The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (Santa Fe) on r2parks.net
Picturing Texas: The Farm Security Administration-Office of War on the Portal to Texas History
Visual Sociology by Douglas Harper (Routledge, 2012)
The History of Photography: An Overview by Alma Davenport (UNM Press, 1991)
Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression by Colleen McDannell (Yale University Press, 2004)
Ordinary People: Jack Delano by Arthur H. Bleich in Rangefinder magazine
Crucible of Freedom: Workers' Democracy in the Industrial Heartland, 1914–1960 by Eric Leif Davin (Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010)
American Photography and the American Dream by James Guimond (UNC Press Books, 1991)
THE ART SPIRIT By Robert Henri; Notes Taken By M. R. From Robert Henri's Criticisms And Class Talks on Afterall / Online
The Likes of Us: America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration by Stuart Cohen (David R. Godine, 2009)
Jack Delano’s American Sonata by David Gonzalez, Lens, New York Times, October 13, 2011
 Outline for a trip aboard a fast freight from Chicago Illinois to San Bernardino, Calif. (3 p.) by Jack Delano, in LOT 12024, Box 1, Clearances, Army, 1942-1943, held by the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. The outline shows that Delano originally expected to take frieght trains pulled by the new diesel electric engines. As it turned out the trains were engined by steam locomotives, then acknowledged to be more expensive to operate, though now seen as highly romantic. Here is the summary page from this three-page document. Click to view full size.
 Quoted in Documenting America, 1935-1943 by Carl Fleischhauer, Beverly W. Brannan, and Lawrence W. Levine (University of California Press, 1988)
 You can see something of this diversity by skimming the results of an online search of Delano's photographs from March 1943 in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division catalog.
 Stryker's approach to documentary photography of the American Depression contrasted the dignity and despair of the Depression's victims. His optimism about this dicotemy came out when he said: "Maybe I'm a fool, but I believe that dignity wins out. When it doesn't then we as a people will become extinct." (Quoted in Documenting America). Stryker's biography in The History of American Photography says he came to understand this dignity and and attain his positive outlook while he and his wife were living in a New York tenement during his school years: "Their neighbors were mostly immigrants who worked feverishly simply to maintain the barest requirements of life. This experience impressed Stryker immensely. Food may have been lacking, clothing may have been scarce, but the fiber of these people was based on dignity, endurance, and the simple pleasures afforded by freedom."
 Stryker wanted pictures of "the common people," the hard working survivors who built America. "I think it's significant," Stryker later said, "that in our entire collection we have only one picture of Franklin Roosebvelt, the most newsworthy man of the era ... You'll find no record of big people or big events in the collection ... not a single shot of Wall Street, and absolutely no celebrities." Quoted in Crucible of Freedom: Workers' Democracy in the Industrial Heartland, 1914–1960 by Eric Leif Davin (Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010)
 Delano's military authorization for the photo shoot enabled him to have the train stopped or moved for vantage to get a photo he wanted to take. If he could have the engineer and conductor do these things for him, there's little reason to believe he wouldn't also ask his sujects to move about a bit to improve a composition for him.
When WWII began, the FSA was folded into the Office of War Information (OWI) and its photographers were assigned to projects that would promote the war effort. Much to his delight, Delano was tapped for a month-long trip to document America’s railroads; he’d ride with the crews and even had the authority to stop the train (with the engineer’s consent) to get any shots he needed. ... Delano’s first attempt to stop a train for a shot he wanted was met by the engineer’s blunt refusal. “Young man,” he said, “if I stopped the train here we could never get it started again but would go rolling down the hill backward.” So Delano waited until he was aboard a different train, one that was rounding a curve with more than a 100 cars strung out behind carrying bombs, tractors, trucks and tanks. This time the engineer complied and brought the train to a halt. Delano hopped off but found the composition wasn’t right; the train needed to be moved forward some more. He shouted instructions to the engineer and the train inched forward. “Never had I had such a sense of power,” he recalls. “I felt like Hercules. Wow! To think I could move that whole train with just the wave of my hand.” When he’d finished shooting, he signaled the engineer to get moving again and hopped on the caboose as it rolled by.
-- Quoted in
Ordinary People: Jack Delano by Arthur H. Bleich in Rangefinder magazine
 On the skull controversy see:
- Photography and the Great Depression: Arthur Rothstein, a site was created for a Photographic Archives course at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College
- The History of Photography: An Overview by lma Davenport (UNM Press, 1991)
- The controversy was eventually quelled when Stryker pointed out that while he moved the skull ten feet, he certainly did not move it out of the drought area, which was littered with such skulls.
- THE NATURALISTIC ENTHYMEME AND VISUAL ARGUMENT: PHOTOGRAPHIC REPRESENTATION IN THE 'SKULL CONTROVERSY'. by Cara A. Finnegan in Argumentation and Advocacy › Vol. 37 Nbr. 3, January 2001
- Oral history interview with Arthur Rothstein, 1964 May 25, an interview of Arthur Rothstein conducted in New York, N.Y., 1964 May 25, by Richard Doud, for the Archives of American Art; Transcript: 31 pages
 Quoted in Documenting America, 1935-1943 by Carl Fleischhauer, Beverly W. Brannan, and Lawrence W. Levine (University of California Press, 1988).
Robert Henri, famous painter in the New York Ashcan School, his paintings are realistic, in the usual sense of the word, rather than abstract. He understood the difference between a painting which records an observation and a work of art — the difference between a work of art which simply records a subject faithfully and one that brings out something more from within it. In notes from lectures he gave at the Art Students League he said "Rather paint the flying spirit of the bird than its feathers." Quoted in Affirmations for Artists, ed. by Eric Maisel (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1996)
Delano realized that a good photograph could sometimes capture this flying spirit, but not always. He put a poem in his diary which he called "Things I cannot photograph." Here's its end:
A train is approaching us!
The glare of the headlight
With a WHOOSH of thunder as it flies by us.
The brakeman gets down from the cupola and watches it go by
Two red lights and a white one pass us
The white one waves up and down.
Then back again to the drone
I throw a cigarette out of the window
It whirls off in the backwash scattering sparks wildly like fireworks
The blackness again.
-- Quoted in: Jack Delano’s American Sonata by David Gonzalez, Lens, New York Times, October 13, 2011
 Oral history interview with Jack and Irene Delano, 1965 June 12 conducted by Richard Doud for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art; transcript, 63 pp of a sound recording on 2 tape reels