The Great Depression was the longest and most severe economic downturn in American history. In the 1930s, a huge number of Americans had their lives upset by skyrocketing unemployment, economic hardships, homelessness, and poverty. It was during this time that a very brave woman by the name of Marion Post Wolcott picked up her camera to document the struggle, the plight, and the everyday lives of the people most affected by The Great Depression. Her story is one of inspiration and a reminder of the fact that while art can be aesthetically pleasing, it can also be used to bring awareness and attention to many of the problems plaguing our society as well.
In 1910, Marion Post Wolcott was born in Montclair, New Jersey to Marion Hoyt Post and Dr. Walter Post. From a young age, Marion found her fascinated with art, music, and theater. After graduating from Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut, she took a special interest in, and began studying, modern dance at the New School for Social Research and then later at New York University. She traveled extensively continuing her study of dance in Paris. It’s evident that her love for dance, movement, and physical expression were translated with powerful presence in her photographs.
Wolcott also studied dance and child psychology at the University of Vienna in Austria. It was there that she met Viennese photographer Trude Fleischmann and purchased her first camera; a small and compact Rolleiflex with a twin lens reflex. Trude Fleischmann was impressed with the candid, raw, and documentary style nature of her work and encouraged her to continue with her photography.
After her studies in Vienna, Wolcott moved back to New York and began freelancing. She landed some jobs doing fashion photography and various events. She also took a job as a teacher to make ends meet. It was during her stint as a teacher that she first began to take a hard look at economic disparities between the children in the area where she taught and where she lived.
Growing increasingly frustrated with landing the same kind of work, Wolcott submitted pieces of her work to Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Her extensive traveling and views on politics, class, and social status made her long for work with deeper meaning and self fulfillment. Stryker was impressed with what he saw and hired her immediately.
The Farm Security Administration was set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help American farmers who were hit especially hard during the depression. Wolcott’s job was to document with pictures the effect that the great depression had on our nation. With camera in hand, Wolcott traveled across the country, primarily focusing in the deep south, photographing the lives, despair, hopes, and dreams of those who had been hurt during these difficult times.
Often traveling alone to complete her assignments for the FSA, Wolcott bravely battled illness, bad weather, and skepticism with a strong heart and mind. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, women photographers had a hard time gaining respect from their male counterparts. Wolcott not only demanded the respect that she deserved but got it by displaying exceptional work ethic and letting her photographs speak for themselves.
Wolcott’s creativity and ability to capture the details, raw emotion, and reality of her subjects’ circumstances was indeed a fine art. While showing the severity of the problems at hand, Wolcott still was able to photograph her subjects in a way that showed their dignity and self respect.
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering why Wolcott subjects’ allowed her to document such personal and sensitive parts of their lives. The answer is simple. Wolcott had a deep respect and understanding for her subjects. She felt a strong connection to the hard working nature of these individuals. She felt their pain, but also shared in their joys. She picked cotton with her subjects, changed their baby’s diapers, and washed their children’s faces.
When her work was released to the public, people were shocked, appalled, and made to feel uncomfortable by what they saw. Like any noted photographer and serious artist, this made Marion proud. She felt that she had accomplished her goal of bringing artistic awareness to the world.
In 1941, Marion met Lee Wolcott and the two married. After finishing her assignment for the FSA, she retired in order to raise a family and travel. She never stopped taking pictures and remained dedicated to the art of photography by teaching and giving lectures. Her FSA work has been widely collected and exhibited in almost, if not all, major museum in the United States and abroad. She’s received numerous awards and praise from the art community. Marion Post Wolcott died in 1990 after a long battle with lung cancer. Her story was especially inspiring to me because of her determination and “by any means necessary” attitude towards her art and cause. Being from the south, I greatly appreciate the photographs that show a part of the landscape, ancestry, and history that I love so well. The talent and artistic value of her journey make me proud to have presented you with the art HERstory of Marion Post Wolcott.
Quotes and facts cited from Marion Post Wolcott: A Biographical Sketch by Linda Wolcott-Moore
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