15 August 2023

The Photography of Jack Délano - the Man who Colored the Forties

Above: A young worker at the C & NW RR 40th Street shops, Chicago, Illinois, 1942.

"I was interested in people not only as images, but also as human beings. In stories that they would tell me or interviews I had with them. It seemed to be it was an important part of what I was trying to communicate." 

    - Jack Délano, Far From Main Street

Above: Taken in September 1941, this is the backstage area of the girlie show at the Vermont State Fair.

Many people will admit to having eclectic tastes but a significantly smaller number would be able to raise their hands and profess to having eclectic talents too.  Not so Jack Délano whose pictures of ordinary American life in the 1940s made him world famous as a photographer.  He was, however, also a trained musician, a composer, an illustrator and latterly a film and documentary maker. Here, we shall focus on his photography but as we examine his work in this field we hope to also include detail of his other areas of artistic interests.

Above: Farm workers chop cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Georgia in June 1941.

In 1914 a child, Jacob, was born to the Ovcharov in the small Ukrainian town of Voroshilovka.  His parents were solidly middle class – his mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a dentist.  The Russian Revolution greatly affected the family and the emigrated to America in 1923, settling eventually in Philadelphia. After high school he studied for an Arts degree and managed to win a scholarship in 1935 to travel to Europe where he became deeply influenced by Renaissance art as well as discovering modern art which made something of a rebel against artistic conservatism.

Above: Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass in January 1941

Above:  A young family wonder in which direction they should go at the Vermont County Fair, September 1941

The camera that he bought for his European trip was to change his life and it was at this time that Jacob Ovcharov changed his name to Jack Délano.  After graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts he started to work as a freelance photographer first in Philadelphia before he almost inevitably was drawn to the cultural magnet of New York.  As part of the Federal Art Program, Délano photographed mining conditions in Pennsylvania and sent samples to Roy Stryker.

Above: Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941
Above: A "barker" at the Vermont state fair, Rutland, September 1941

Stryker was the head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (universally known as FSA and was responsible for the launch of the documentary photography section of the FSA. Stryker, impressed with the young photographer’s work, offered him a job ($2,300 salary per year on one provision – that he had his own car and license to drive.  Délano quickly acquired these and embarked upon the project which would make him world famous.

Above: Sugar cane workers resting, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico - December 1941

Above: The son of a sugar cane workers resting, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico - December 1941

That was in 1940 and for the next three years he travelled extensively through the US, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico documenting the social and working conditions of people involved in projects controlled by the FSA.

Above: Packing oranges at a co-op orange packing plant, Redlands, California, Macrh 1943
Above: Children gathering potatoes on a large farm, vicinity of Caribou, Aroostook County, Maine. Schools did not open until the potatoes were harvested, October 1940.

The match of Délano and the FSA was made in photographic heaven.  As part of the New Deal program the FSA’s role was to support small farmers and to assist in the restoration of land and communities which had been massively damaged by the Depression.  With the FSA he joined a host of other photographers who would become legend, from Dorothea Lange to Gordon Parks and John Vachon.  These photographers would produce images that had a massive impact on how the general public (and policy makers in their turn) understood what the Depression had done to people and communities in America.

Above: Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C. & N.W. R.R., Clinton, Iowa - April 1943

Above: Mike Evans, a welder, at the rip tracks at Proviso yard of the C & NW RR, Chicago, Illinois, April 1943

Délano’s trademark was his strong compositions.  His broad education in the arts and his visit to Europe had helped him to learn about the importance of color in composing pictures of greatness.  He also became renowned for his sensitivity to his subjects, the natural and very human way in which they were captured showed their ease with him.  His images are imbued with a great sensitivity to the lives of the people that he captured on film and he let them very much be themselves.

Image Credit Flickr Library of Congress
The above, from 1943, shows one of the hundreds of thousands of women who worked on the train system at the time while the men were away at war.  She is Viola Sievers, who worked as a wiper – which was basically a train washer.

Above: General view of part of the South Water Street freight depot of the Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago, Illinois, May 1943.

Délano completed a number of assignments for the FSA - one of his most famous involved the country’s train system in which he captured the trains of the USA in ravishing color (as well as many in Black and White which have become, not to put too fine a point on it, iconographic).

Above: Men reading headlines posted in street-corner of Brockton Enterprise newspaper office, Brockton, Mass.December 1940

Just as the FSA was eliminated as a budget waste, Délano was drafted in to the army.  He received promotion up to the rank of Second Lieutenant and travelled through the South Pacific and South America.

After discharge from the Army in 1946 Délano returned to Puerto Rico with his wife Irene.  During his work for the FSA the couple had become entranced with the island nation and thanks to the funding of the Guggenheim Foundation the couple were able to document the social conditions of the Puerto Ricans.  They almost immediately became involved in the creation of a government department to combat the massive problem of illiteracy there.

Above: Hump master in a Chicago and Northwestern railroad yard operating a signal switch system which extends the length of the hump track. He is thus able to control movements of locomotives pushing the train over the hump from his post at the hump office; Chicago, Illinois, December 1942.

Above: "Backstage" at the "girlie" show at the Vermont state fair, Rutland, 1941 September.

The couple became permanent residents on the island and in the1950s Délano discovered his talent for composing. He also started designing and illustrating books for children as well as making films about life on the island of Puerto Rico.  Délano died in 1997 leaving behind him a substantial body of work which highlights the human condition in so many ways.

First mage Credit Flickr Library of Congress