John Vachon: A Certain Look

John Vachon was a taciturn, brooding, hard-drinking man, a product of the Great Depression, who traveled about the American heartland and around the world for nearly forty years, taking candid pictures of everyday realities in people’s lives—a woman laughing, a man lighting a pipe, a child crying from the cold, a contemplative family—almost always using natural light and black-and-white film. In 1973, toward the end of those years, he told how he had been shooting in Omaha, Nebraska, thirty-five years earlier, when he first realized that he had his own style of seeing with a camera: “I knew that I would photograph only what pleased or astonished my eye, and only in the way I saw it.” That he found a way to stick to that declaration is shown now by the consistency of his vast output and by the mark of each of his enduring images that many of his peers still call a “Vachon photo.”
Most of Vachon’s photographs belong to the postwar heyday of the great mass-circulation general-interest weekly and biweekly magazines. Beginning at age thirty-four, in 1948, Vachon was a Look staff photographer for twenty-one years and, even after an economy wave, continued for two more years as a Look contract photographer until the thirty-five-year-old magazine, exhausted by its competition with its printed rivals and the irresistible rise of television, was discontinued. Collier’s and the old Saturday Evening Post were already defunct, and the weekly Life soon followed. For many years, however, Look ’s success meant that its large staff of photographers and writers could go almost anywhere on the expense account to see almost anything or anybody if it meant a good story. Vachon was one of those who could do it, averaging about eight trips a year, adding up to a twenty-three-year total of an estimated 175 Look picture stories and more than two thousand published photos. The range of his subjects matched every category featured in the magazine—from war, politics, race, and poverty to sports, fashion, religion, and science. And these took him almost everywhere—from the Dakotas to the Antarctic, from a Boston slum to a Canadian retreat for Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. (As a writer for Look in the fifties and sixties, I teamed up with Vachon for nineteen stories, including the plight of the Sioux in South Dakota, a family snowbound in Montana, J. Robert Oppenheimer at home in Princeton, New Jersey, and Tibetans in a refugee camp in Assam.) After Look folded, Vachon continued as a freelancer until cancer brought him down. In 1975 he died in New York at the age of sixty.
He had his own style of seeing with the camera, photographing only what pleased or astonished his eye.
There is, in addition, another body of Vachon’s work, pre-Look, begun at age twenty-four and shot for the remarkable photo file of the Historical Section of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal agency once part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The file was the creation of a Columbia University economics professor named Roy Stryker, who wanted in 1935 to make a pictorial record of the effect of the Great Depression on rural America; publication of some of the photographs would also accomplish a propaganda mission, building support for New Deal rescue programs. Included among the photographers on Stryker’s staff at various times were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, and John Vachon. Shooting for Stryker was what Vachon was doing in Omaha in 1938 when he found himself and set out on his life’s work.
That a single personal sensibility has been so infallibly expressed through so much work produced on so many different subjects is Vachon’s triumph. His photographic style had come down from Mathew Brady to Jacob Riis to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa to Walker Evans (whom he worshiped) and Brassaï (to whom he might best be compared), but none were so variously engaged as Vachon. And regardless of subject matter, what comes through is a moral vision, the sense of someone quintessentially democratic, insisting on both the uniqueness of individuals and the ordinariness of people despite their differences. That was a subliminal message of the mass-circulation general-interest magazines, Look and Life especially, and I suspect that it is the message of the TV medium too.
Vachon was fascinated by the tension he saw between the potential heroism of mankind and the compromises of society. For him, that was what life was all about. Vachon’s sense of it sometimes seems to have been almost mythical. But it had to be there in his lens for him to see it, which may be why he sought to achieve it without rearranging people or objects. He excelled at portraits because, for him, a portrait was a photograph of something ordinary going on—a person having his picture taken. Anything posed, anything rehearsed, anything set up—from portraits to fashion shots, which he suffered for Look from time to time—escaped his best efforts. Certainly he was a natural for Look ’s concept of the picture story, integrating candid photos and concise text to make that message accessible through a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.