Several beautiful portraits by Carl Van Vechten, who photographed many of the 20th century’s most illustrious intellectuals and artists, have recently shown up on the Library of Congress’s Flickr feed. Among them is this particularly surreal composition, featuring a young Truman Capote, photographed against a dreamlike marbled background with puppets. At just 24 years of age, Capote was already attaining the status of a celebrity with the publication of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition. That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today. The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression. That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.
Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.
The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.
Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.
For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’ A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.
Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.
Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.
Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.
Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white. As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.
Houses and factories. Unidentified photographer. From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.
The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science. Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology. Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.
All images from the Library of Congress. Click on an image to go to its source.
We saw this beautiful watercolor in an antique store and were immediately drawn to its vibrant color and technique. Bob liked it because it was a ‘happy’ picture. Its subject, the lush backyard of a suburban home in summer, was familiar. The back yard turns out to have been on Chicago’s North Shore—perhaps in Lake Forest or Highland Park, where the water-colorist, Frederick William Boulton, lived for several decades.
Boulton (1904-1969) was born in Mishawaka, Indiana, the son of a Lutheran minister. He came to Chicago to study at the Art Institute and the American Academy of Art, completing his studies in Paris at the esteemed Académie Julian. Returning to Chicago, he embarked in 1923 on a career as a commercial artist with J Walter Thompson, the ad agency.
Boulton was successful, becoming an art director and vice president at JWT, while continuing to paint in his spare time. He founded the Art Directors’ Club of Chicago and was honored as art director of the year by the National Society of Art Directors in 1955. According to the Highland Park Public Library, which owns one of his paintings, he lived in the Braeside area of Highland Park from 1938 until the late 1950s.
‘Summertime 1944′ has a signed inscription—’As George remembers it. And fondly dedicated to him’— that adds interest and charm to what we see. The house and garden, if lifeless, are perfect. The grass is manicured, the landscape and patio glowing with order and beauty. Whether painted in the summer of 1944 or later, this elegant depiction of a place ‘George’ knew well may well have been intended to make him smile or laugh.
Does ‘Summertime 1944’ faithfully represent a place and a moment, or is it an idealized souvenir of a past that never was, or was no longer, as tranquil and perfect as memory deemed? Whatever the case, its paean to the joys of home still sings.