On Exhibit: the conscience of the New Deal | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: the conscience of the New Deal 

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In 1943 Daniel Senise was a $53-a-week conductor on the Illinois Harbor Belt Railroad. In February of that year he was approached in the Blue Island switching yard by a young man. I work for the government, said the man, and I want to take your picture. "I told him exactly what I was doing," recalls Jack Delano, the photographer, "and what it was for, and asked him if I could go to his house and photograph his family and so on. He said, 'Sure, that would be OK.'" The rest, as they say, was history.

Delano, who worked with the Office of War Information, had been dispatched "to show what the railroads were doing in support of the war effort"--a good and patriotic cause. It was also a plum assignment for a young photographer. Delano spent a month just riding freight trains between Chicago and San Francisco--an experience, ironically, that was all too familiar to many unemployed Americans. But Delano was getting paid for it.

"Imagine a young guy having passes and clearance--from the War Department, the FBI, the Secret Service, and just about anybody you could think of--to get on and off trains anywhere he wanted to, with the power even to stop the train if I wanted to take a picture. It was just a wonderful assignment," says Delano, who now lives in Puerto Rico, a place he discovered in 1941 when he was sent there to photograph farming conditions.

Delano spent two "bitterly cold" months in Chicago, the railroad hub of the nation, photographing not only the railroads themselves but also the people who worked on them or rode them--which in 1943 was most Americans. What he did was more social documentary than industrial photography.

That was familiar turf for Delano, who had begun working for OWI when that agency took over the photography department of the Farm Security Administration in 1942. Under the benevolent direction of a tough-talking Columbia University professor named Roy Stryker, the FSA's photography division acted as the conscience of the New Deal, documenting American poverty and hope and despair from the Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930s to the beginning of World War II. Some of the FSA photographs have become icons, the sort of images that come to mind automatically when we think of the depression: Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," Arthur Rothstein's view of a father and two small sons trudging through an Oklahoma dust storm.

The FSA photographers did not reach Chicago until the end of the 1930s; the FSA's original mission, as the name implied, was to concentrate on the problems of rural America and bring them to the public's attention. Stryker's photographers showed relatively prosperous urban residents how much poor sharecroppers and migrant farm workers were in need of New Deal assistance programs. But Stryker's vision broadened with time; he wanted his agency to provide a visual record not just of rural America but of all America.

So when Jack Delano came to Chicago, Stryker had assigned him not just to photograph the railroads, but to document the larger social context. He photographed whatever else he could: small-business owners, parents reading the comics to their children, the Senise family, the oldest resident of the newly constructed Ida B. Wells housing project. Many of the photos he and other FSA/OWI photographers took here are now on display in a new exhibition at the Chicago Historical Society, "The FSA in Illinois: Chicago as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers, 1939-43."

The Chicago photographers spent much of their time in the city's south-side "Black Belt." Few black people had the money to buy cameras, and blacks were largely ignored by the press, so Stryker's photographers broke new ground. "Pictures of black people simply didn't exist at the time," says Larry Viskochil, the curator of prints and photographs at the Historical Society and cocurator of "The FSA in Illinois." "This [the FSA/OWI photos] put a whole body of work into the hands of the press, and eventually into our hands."

The picture of black life in Chicago 50 years ago shows grinding poverty and the struggle to maintain dignity under oppressive conditions. The most affecting photos are those of life in south-side "kitchenettes," one room apartments that were often horribly crowded. "Sometimes five or six of us live in a one-room kitchenette. . . . The kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavements," wrote Richard Wright in 12 Million Black Voices, a lyrical essay on the history of blacks in America published in 1941. The book was illustrated with FSA photos of rural and urban blacks, including many from Chicago.

The FSA/OWI photos were seen: many were published in books, brochures, and magazine and newspaper stories. "I thought that I was providing material for people to use sometime in the future in all sorts of ways," says Delano' "And we were looking toward publication. We weren't thinking about photographs as works of art to be shown in museums and sold for a lot of money, as seems to be the trend today. If some of them turned out to be great works of art that was fine, but that wasnt the object."

"The FSA in Illinois" opens tomorrow, April 22, and runs through July 31 at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street and North Avenue. Running concurrently will be the "Changing Chicago" project, a collection of documentary photographs showing Chicago today; it was inspired, in part, by the FSA program. Hours are 9:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday; 12 to 5 Sunday. Free Mondays, otherwise admission is $1.50, 50 cents for seniors and children. For more information call 642-4600.

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