Tuesday, June 04, 2013

New York City, September, 1942

Here are photographs Marjory Collins took in September, 1942. I was then five months old and the United States had been at war for nine. The Office of War Information had been established the previous June and had immediately absorbed the photographic unit of the old Farm Security Administration. FSA had many fine photographers including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Ben Shahn, and Jack Delano. Collins was a recent hire. She'd been on the job only a few months before the unit moved to OWI. Nonetheless her approach to documentary photography was typical of the long-term members of the unit. In adopting photography as a career she had turned her back on the upper-middle-class suburban life, with its costly private schooling, in which she had been raised. In matters political she was a New Deal liberal. In matters social she rooted for the underdog. Like the other FSA/OWI photographers she had a knack for choosing photographic subjects that evoked the democratic ideals of fair play for minorities and outcast groups, a rebalanced legal authority permitting unions to stand up to powerful industrial interests, and reassessment of the proper place of women in American culture.

In 1942 OWI photographers supported the war effort by showing Americans making the rapid transitions that mobilization required. In September of that year members of OWI's photographic unit made images for instructional filmstrips on how to grow victory gardens and how to put up fruits and vegetables. They photographed people doing war mobilization work in shipyards, government offices, and factories. They took photo sets to accompany magazine articles on high school students learning civil defense skills, on newly enlisted soldiers adapting to life on base, and on migratory farm workers in West Virginia and upper New York State. OWI photos from September also show miners at the Anaconda Company in Montana, and fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. There are images of the Grand Coolee Dam, of the launching of the S.S. Booker T. Washington, and of a lone sheepherder and his dog in the western mountains.

Marjory Collins' photos of September, 1942, were all taken in New York City. They show people waiting for trains on the Third Avenue El, relaxing on a sunny Sunday in Central Park, at work to prepare the daily editions of the New York Times, and meeting at a convention of maritime workers. Where the other OWI photographs tend to show a nation that is resolute in its determination to win the war, the ones Collins achieve another purpose: they tend to counter enemy propaganda that portrayed the US as a divided society run by gangsters and plutocrats where blacks and other minorities are kept in servitude and the poor are forced hopelessly to endure miserable conditions.

Here are some of them, all from collections in the Library of Congress. See whether you agree that they show a diverse society that has racial, economic, and cultural divisions but none so great as to threaten the nation's ability to achieve its war aims. Where enemy propaganda argued that only totalitarian regimes were able to control social conflict and prevent violence between the parties of the Left and Right, the photos that Collins took reveal a society where divisions exist but are nowhere near so sharp as to threaten the stability of the nation.

1. The New York Times. A few years ago I made a blog post of these images: NYT Sept 1942. Here's a shot from that set.

{Caption: Pressroom of the New York Times newspaper. Putting plates into presses before they start rolling}

2. In August, Collins had taken photos in the 34th Street station of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In September she photographed the 34th Street bus terminal. Here are a couple of images from that assignment.

{Caption: Boarding interstate buses at the Greyhound bus terminal, 34th Street}

{Caption: Boarding interstate buses at the Greyhound bus terminal, 34th Street}

Detail from this image:

3. She spent a warm and hazy Sunday afternoon taking photos in Central Park.

{Caption: Central Park common on Sunday}

{Caption: Central Park lake on Sunday}

{Caption: Central Park lake on Sunday looking east}

{Caption: Central Park lake on Sunday}

{Caption: Bicycling in Central Park on Sunday}

{Caption: The mall restaurant in Central Park on Sunday}

{Caption: Path in Central Park ramble on Sunday}

{Caption: Croquet game on Sunday in Central Park}

{Caption: Croquet game on Sunday in Central Park}

{Caption: Negro chauffeur walking a dachshund in Central Park}

{Caption: Near Central Park lake on Sunday}

{Caption: Drinking fountain in Central Park on Sunday}


4. Early one morning she took the 3rd Ave. El from 94th St. down to 13th.

{Caption: 94th Street. Station of the Third Avenue elevated railway at 8 a.m.}

{Caption: Third Avenue elevated railway station in the "Seventies" at 8:30 a.m.}

{Caption: Looking south on Third Avenue from the 59th Street (Bloomingdale's) station at 8:30 a.m.}

5. On what seems to have been the same shoot, she took photos in the vicinity of 3rd Ave and 14th St.

{Caption: Fourteenth Street under the Third Avenue and 14th Street}

{Caption: Bum who claimed to be Scotch comedian, at Third Avenue and 14th Street}

{Caption: The Bowery about 10 p.m.}

{Caption: Workers' bookshop in a building on 13th Street between University Place and Broadway, which is the headquarters of the Communist party. No mention of Communism appears in the display or on the building}

6. She also photographed activities in a Greenwhich Village salon.

{Caption: Receptionist making an appointment at Francois de Paris, a hairdresser on Eighth Street}

{Caption: Manicurist at Francois de Paris, a hairdresser on Eighth Street}

7. She attended a convention of the Marine and Shipbuilding workers' union. Unfortunately, only low resolution scans are available from that assignment.