John Vachon’s first job at the Farm Security Administration carried the title « assistant messenger. » He was twenty-one, and had come to Washington from his native Minnesota to attend The Catholic University of America. Vachon had no intention of becoming a photographer when he took the position in 1936, but as his responsibilities increased for maintaining the FSA photographic file, his interest in photography grew.
By 1937 Vachon had looked enough to want to make photographs himself, and with advice from Ben Shahn he tried out a Leica in and around Washington. His weekend photographs of « everything in the Potomac River valley » were clearly the work of a beginner, but Stryker lent him equipment and encouraged him to keep at it. Vachon received help as well from Walker Evans, who insisted that he master the view camera, and Arthur Rothstein, who took him along on a photographic assignment to the mountains of Virginia. In October and November 1938, Vachon traveled to Nebraska on his first extensive solo trip. He photographed agricultural programs on behalf of the FSA’s regional office and pursued an extra assignment from Stryker: the city of Omaha.
The hallmark of this style of photography is the portrayal of people and places encountered on the street, unembellished by the beautifying contrivances used by calendar and public relations photographers.
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2013 © Marie-Lou Chatel