Delano was born as Jacob Ovcharov in Voroshilovka village, Podolie Governorate, near Vinnytsia, Russian Empire and moved, with his parents and younger brother, to the United States in 1923. The family arrived at New York on July 5, 1923 on the boat SS Homeric. Between 1924 and 1932 he studied graphic arts/photography and music (viola and composition) at the Settlement Music School and solfeggio with a professor from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After being awarded an art scholarship for his talents, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) where, from 1928 until 1932, he studied illustration and continued his musical training. While there, Delano was awarded the Cresson Traveling Scholarship, on which he chose to travel to Europe, where he bought a camera that got him interested in photography.
After graduating from the PAFA, Delano proposed a photographic project to the Federal Art Project: a study of mining conditions in the Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania anthracite coal area. Delano sent sample pictures to Roy Stryker and applied for a job at the Farm Security Administration Photography program FSA. Through the help of Edwin Rosskam and Marion Post Wolcott, Stryker offered Delano a job at $2,300/year. As a condition of the job, Delano had to have his own car and driver’s license, both of which he acquired before moving to Washington, D.C.
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