The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano

The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano


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Born in the Ukraine, photographer Jack Delano moved to the United States in 1923. After graduating from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1937, Delano worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Office of War Information (OWI) as a photographer. Best known for his work for the Office of War Information during 1940–1943, Jack Delano captured the face of American railroading in a series of stunning photographs. His images, especially his portraits of railroad workers, are a vibrant and telling portrait of industrial life during one of the most important periods in American history. This remarkable collection features Delano’s photographs of railroad operations and workers taken for the OWI in the winter of 1942/43 and during a cross-country journey on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, plus an extensive selection of his groundbreaking color images. The introduction provides the most complete summary of Delano’s life published to date. Both railroad and photography enthusiasts will treasure this worthy tribute to one of the great photographers of the thirties and forties.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253017772
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/14/2015
Series: Railroads Past and Present
Pages: 204
Sales rank: 820,004
Product dimensions: 11.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tony Reevy is Senior Associate Director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America's Last Great Steam Railroad.

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The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano

By Tony Reevy

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Tony Reevy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01777-2




IN FEBRUARY 1940, Roy Stryker, chief of the FSA Historical Section, wrote to John R. Fischer, director of the Division of Information:

We are going to have to move fast to get a new man on the payroll to replace Arthur Rothstein. As you know, it is not going to be the easiest thing in the world to find a man to take hold of Arthur's job and get into the swing of production in the manner of Lee, Rothstein, and Post. ... We have already found the man, Mr. Jack Delano. ... We have an outstanding person. He is an artist by training, and has used the camera for several years. He did one of the finest jobs on the story of the coal miners in the anthracite region that I have ever seen. A man that can turn out as excellent a job is not to be lost.

As was his practice, Stryker was soon in very active correspondence with Delano, advising him to read Stuart Chase's Rich Land, Poor Land and J. Russell Smith's North America. He also advised Delano, "When you first start to work, we are going to send you out on short trips of two, three, and four days; then back into Washington. ... There's a lot of work in the nearby vicinity that ought to be done – and it's always being postponed in favor of jobs that are half-way across the continent." Stryker didn't mention it to Delano, but these short, local assignments were also his way of testing new photographers, and of accustoming them to working for the FSA.

Stryker had a penchant for sending FSA photographers to the area of Delano's first significant early assignment: a May 1940 visit to the tobacco growing, selling, and processing region of Piedmont, North Carolina, centering on the city of Durham. The area was also shot for the FSA by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Marion Post Wolcott. Delano was taken aback by the segregated society he encountered in North Carolina; despite his revulsion to segregation, he would spend a great deal of his time with the FSA in the southern United States. Indeed, according to his son, Pablo Delano, it was Jack Delano s empathy for the plight of African Americans, living in the legacy of slavery and facing so much prejudice, which led him to do so much work there. He was also attracted to the beauty of the people, and of the land.

Delano s visit to the Durham, North Carolina, region produced a number of successful photographs, and Stryker next entrusted him with a complex and lengthy assignment – tracing the route of migratory agricultural workers on the eastern US seaboard. This portfolio produced a small number of photographs of railroading in the United States, with the first of these set in North Carolina (plates 1–3, July 1940). Delano s work in New England and the northeast later in 1940 also produced notable railroad-subject images; the ones featured here are set in Pennsylvania, Maine, and Connecticut (plates 4–10, August, October, and November 1940).

Stryker soon let Delano know he needed to "keep us informed of your whereabouts at all times," and added, "You have some awfully good stuff in this set; your inside shots are much better than the outside ones. I presume weather is largely to blame for this. I will give you more detailed comments on the pictures later on." Generally, however, Delano's FSA colleagues were delighted with his images. Clara Dean "Toots" Wakeham, writing for Stryker, said, "I have had a chance to see some of your pictures since I have been back. And I want to tell you, Jack, you really have got the stuff, technique and all! Mr. Stryker, and everyone else, is utterly delighted with you."

These early images, most of which reflect scene rather than portraiture, show the intense influence of Walker Evans on Delano at the time. One of Delano s most noted images, taken at this time in both black-and-white and color (see figure 4.1), a view of a fence with the town of Stonington, Connecticut, in the background, also shows the influence of Paul Strand on Delano – the image is very reminiscent of one of Strand's best-known photographs, "The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1915."8 The portrait of Ammon Elsworth Hontz (plate 5), which exhibits the influence both of Lewis Hine and perhaps also of photojournalistic photographers, is a hint of where Delano s artistry would take him later in his time with the FSA/OWI.

Delano s next major assignment with the FSA, which produced some of his greatest images, was to provide illustrations taken in and near Greene County, Georgia, for sociologist Arthur Raper in 1941. Other significant sets of Delano images showed relocations, to build facilities such as a reservoir in South Carolina (March 1941) and an Army camp in Virginia (June 1941). Also noteworthy was Delano's return to New England in the fall of 1941, especially his photographs of Vermont's state fair in Rutland in September 1941. These sequences of images did not produce any significant railroad-subject photographs.

By April 1941, Stryker was well aware of Delano's potential. In a postscript to a letter dated April 3, 1941, Stryker stated, "I spent Saturday evening with Ed Rosskam. ... He told me that he believes that you have great potentialities; potentialities because you haven't yet had time to produce the work of which he believes you capable. Well, as far as I am concerned, if Ed Rosskam says that about you it must be so. I have known him for a long time and have great admiration and respect for him: I don't know anyone in a better position to judge."

In November 1941, Delano was given an assignment that changed his life – to photograph Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands for the FSA. World War II broke out while Delano was there. Very soon after Pearl Harbor, Delano flew from Puerto Rico to the US Virgin Islands, spending ten days there. In a letter at this time (December 11, 1941), Stryker reemphasized his admiration for Delano's work, saying, "I am terribly pleased with the way you are digging in down there. Your enthusiasm is very important as I know it will mean a thoroughly good job in true Delano style."

At the same time, when writing Arthur Raper, who was about to use Delano's images of Greene County, Georgia, to illustrate Tenants of the Almighty, Stryker – in this case an oracle in terms of Delano's future in Puerto Rico – said, "Jack has been in Puerto Rico now for the past ten days. I have had two letters from him. He is terribly excited about his work down there, and is finding a tremendous amount of stimulation which in turn will translate itself into photographs. The way they are coming in, it looks as if I will have to put on an extra laboratory man to keep up with him."

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Delano, his wife, Irene, took passage to Puerto Rico in order to join him there. The freighter on which she was a passenger left from Baltimore, and took ten days to reach San Juan, zigzagging continuously because of the U-boat threat. The Delanos stayed in Puerto Rico until March 1942.14 They would return to it, together, right after the close of the war, and would spend the rest of their lives there.

Delano took a small number of railroad-subject images in Puerto Rico, of industrial railroads serving the sugar industry, during early 1942 (plates 11–14). His greatest work on Puerto Rican railroads was done not for the FSA/OWI, but for the Office of Information of the government of Puerto Rico. The negatives for these images are lost, and none of them are featured in this book – the best of them maybe viewed in Delano's From San Juan to Ponce on the Train. The combined influence of Walker Evans and 1930s photojournalism is still very evident in plates 11–14.

In March 1942, Delano returned to a mainland United States that was very much at war. A few months later, his section of the FS A was transferred to the OWI. The last set of FSA images featured in this portfolio, plates 15–17, taken in March 1942, show Pullman porter Alfred McMillan working aboard the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's Capitol Limited, which ran from New York City through Washington, DC, to Chicago. These very fine portraits show a marked change in Delano's railroad-subject images, with another major Delano influence, Lewis Hine, perhaps coming to the fore. Hines social documentary bent is perhaps most evident in "Alfred MacMillan [sic], Pullman porter resting in the men's washroom aboard the 'Capitol Limited' bound for Chicago, Illinois." McMillan's dignity, despite his having to take his break in the washroom, makes for a stunning image.

In the context of Delano s sporadic FSA railroad-subject images, this development in his artistry seems sudden; but Delano's skill with portraiture had always been evident, even in his very early views of coal miners for the Federal Art Project. From this point on, however, Delano's photography would exhibit a greater concentration on portraiture. It is likely that Delano was drawn to expand this part of his work by his perception that all Americans had to work together against the German and Japanese during the war. What was happening during World War II probably had special import to Delano, as a Jewish immigrant from Russia. The full extent of the Holocaust and the tragedy it was inflicting on Jews, Romani, and others in Germany and German-occupied/controlled areas was not yet known in 1942 and 1943, but the Nazi state s vendetta against Jewish people was already well understood at the time. Clearly, this threat, combined with the state of war facing the United States in general, must have had a profound effect on Delano's thought and, therefore, his photography. As Delano's unit transferred to the Office of War Information in late 1942, his emphasis on portraiture was about to reach a new level of output, and of artistic success.






AFTER A STEEP DECLINE IN ACTIVITY during the years of the Great Depression, the railroads of the United States were suddenly faced with an onslaught of traffic as the country prepared for, and entered, World War II. Since passenger travel was still largely by rail during this period, the increase included dramatic expansions of freight and passenger traffic, the latter driven both by troop trains and by restrictions on civilian purchases of items such as tires and gasoline.

Chicago, as the most important railroad interchange point in the United States, was dramatically impacted by this upsurge in railway traffic. Roy Stryker, as ever the strategic thinker behind the FSA and OWI photographers and their assignments, had long viewed the railroad as an important part of the American scene. In late 1942, Stryker sent Jack Delano to Chicago to conduct an extended project focused on documenting the railroad industry's contribution to the US war effort.

Delano's photographic treatment of American railroading for the OWI falls into two major areas. The first was his work in the greater Chicago area from November 1942 through February 1943, and in April and May 1943. Some of the most notable of these images are presented in this portfolio. Then, during March 1943, Delano photographed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway as he traveled from Chicago to San Bernardino, California, on freight trains. These images are the subject of portfolio 3.

Delano's work during this period also included several diversions from these grand themes. These included a visit to Clinton, Iowa, in April 1943 that resulted in photographs of a group of female railroad workers; and a visit to the Cleveland, Ohio, area in May 1943 to document the Pennsylvania Railroad ore docks there, including Great Lakes freighters and the magnificent Hulett ore unloaders. The visually fascinating Hulett unloaders are true icons of the Industrial Age. A number of color views of these subjects are included in portfolio 4.

Delano's work in the Chicago area (in black-and-white) is presented in this portfolio, and is the subject of John Gruber's recent Railroaders: Jack Delano's Homefront Photography. It falls into several groupings of photos. During November 1942, soon after arriving in the area, Delano photographed the Illinois Central Railroad, including roundhouse and yard locations in Chicago. During December 1942 and January 1943, Delano created one of his most significant bodies of work as he photographed workers in Chicago and North Western Railway (C&NW) roundhouses and shops in Chicago, and C&NW yard and train crews in the Chicago area, including extensive coverage of the railroad's Proviso Yard.

During January and February 1943, Delano created another noted portfolio of images as he photographed Chicago's Union Station. During these months, he also photographed freight operations on a local Chicago-area railroad, the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad (IHB). These images include his magnificent portrait, in photographs, of IHB worker Daniel Sinise.

Delano viewed his railroad-subject images as "the most exciting part of the work" he did for the OWI. His stay in the area was long enough that Irene accompanied him, and they rented an apartment in Chicago as a base for Delano's work there. The weather was bitterly cold, and Delano worked in the harshest of conditions.

The result of this extended activity on Delano's part was a very significant body of work documenting American railroading during World War II, and therefore as it was just before diesel-powered locomotives replaced steam locomotives in the United States. The images presented in this portfolio are organized thematically, rather than chronologically. Plates 18 and 19 set the stage by representing an area passenger train, and railroad help-wanted signs displayed in the street-side windows of a Chicago employment agency.

Plates 20–34 depict Chicago's Union Station. The images include modernist views of station signs reflecting Walker Evans's influence on Delano (plates 20, 27, and 29); railroad workers and passengers/patrons in the station, including some notable portraits; trains arriving at, standing in, and departing from the station; and a wonderful photograph (plate 25), reminiscent of well-known images taken by others in New York's Grand Central Terminal, of light streaming through the Union Station waiting room. This portfolio closes with a section crew watching a train depart the station on what is obviously a bitterly cold day.

Plates 35–74 depict everyday work, during the intense cold of a Chicago winter, on the Illinois Central Railroad and the Chicago and North Western Railway. This group of images is introduced by a view of a Chicago skyscraper framed by two Illinois Central cabooses, and plates 36–47 show workers at their tasks in Illinois Central and C&NW roundhouses and C&NW repair shops. Plates 48–53 show nonoperating railroad workers outside in challenging winter weather: track workers, car repair workers, engine wipers, and turntable operators.

Plates 54–57 show locomotives in this environment: engines being coaled, a relatively rare Delano image of a diesel locomotive, and a Michigan Central locomotive readied for winter with a snowplow.

With plates 58–72, this survey turns to train crews and freight trains operating on the C&NW in the Chicago area. These images include portraits of engineers, firemen, brakemen, and switchmen. Freight trains (plate 63) and switch engines (plate 70) labor through the Chicago winter weather. This set of images closes with a worker playing with the yard office's pet cat (plate 73), and with the end result of all of this difficult, dangerous work: payday (plate 74).

Plates 75–84 show operations on the Indiana Harbor Belt, including the now long-vanished practice of cooling refrigerated railroad cars with ice (plate 75), and fine Delano portraits of engineers, firemen, and switchmen, including an outstanding view taken at dusk or dawn (plate 78). Plates 80–83 are drawn from Delano's extended photographic portrait of IHB worker Daniel Sinise. The images in this portfolio close with railroad workers, probably at the end of their workday, walking through the snow to their rest at a railroad YMCA.

In viewing these images, perhaps the strongest impression, as is often the case with Delano's work, is made by the portraits, especially those of railroad workers. Some of Delano's most noted portraits in black-and-white were taken during the Chicago-area portion of his assignment, including those of Charles Sawer (plate 30) and Frank Williams (plate 49), and the abovementioned series on Daniel Sinise.


Excerpted from The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano by Tony Reevy. Copyright © 2015 Tony Reevy. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Pablo Delano
Preface: A Re-Made Man
Introduction: A Real Respect for the Thing in Front of Him
1. Portfolio One: The Farm Security Administration Photos, 1940-1942
2. Portfolio Two: OWI: Chicago
3. Portfolio Three: OWI: Across the Continent on the Santa Fe
4. Portfolio Four: FSA/OWI: The American Railroad in Color, 1940-1943
Appendix: Notes on the Plate Captions and on the Plates
Appendix: Roy Stryker’s FSA/OWI Shooting Scripts Concerning American Railroads

What People are Saying About This

author of Railroads of Meridian - J. Parker Lamb

Jack Delano had a successful career as a photographer and was widely recognized for his evocative scenes of railway workers and their equipment. In this book, Reevy has presented a topical summary for a comprehensive and well-designed coverage of this worthy subject.

retired Chairman & CEO, ATST and BNSF - Rob Krebs

Kudos to Tony Reevy for skillfully capturing photographer Jack Delano’s love affair with America’s railroads during the mid-20th century. I am especially taken by Delano’s evocative portraits of the men and women of the Santa Fe, who together with countless other railroaders, contributed mightily to America’s efforts during World War II.

author, photo-historian, and Director for Center for Railroad Photography and Art - Jeff Brouws

Tony Reevy has given us an intimate, well-researched masterwork about Jack Delano’s rail-related photography created during his early 1940s tenure with the FSA/OWI. Delano’s photography is foregrounded and given the fulsome aesthetic and historical consideration it deserves. Coupled with Reevy’s thoughtful essays, a deeper contextual appreciation of Delano’s imagery—and its heretofore underrated position within the pantheon of American photography—emerges.

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