John Vachon: A Certain Look

PrintPrintEmailEmail An editor of Look once called him “our poet photographer.” That still seems about right.
Although Vachon succeeded as a journalist, fame and fortune passed him by. He was better known in life as a member of the FSA project than as one of Look ’s stars. In public he was a quiet man, shy to the point of disability in a world that often rewards self-promoters. In private he often seemed to be faintly smiling to himself as though life had just taken a swing at him and missed.
Vachon simply stayed back. Even a recent definitive history of photography mistakenly attributes a Vachon photograph from the FSA project to another photographer. Lacking a “name,” Vachon also lacked leverage at salary-adjustment time. His largest paychecks were never generous, and he was to die broke. Satisfaction had to be his reward. It helped that he was able to teach photography from time to time, and that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Tokyo Museum of Art had exhibited some of his prints.
His photographs captured both the uniqueness of individuals and the ordinariness of people despite their differences.
John Vachon was born in 1914 in St. Paul, Minnesota, bearing the surname of a French-Canadian ancestor. But his father was half Irish, and his mother’s family were O’Haras from the old sod, so he always considered himself an American of thoroughly Irish descent. (Working for Look got him to Ireland often, once to “do” James Joyce’s Dublin, and he never tired of it.)
His parents were not well off. His father made a get-by living as a traveling salesman in stationery supplies. But they lived on a modest block on the better side of St. Paul, close (but not close enough) to the well-to-do neighborhoods around Summit Avenue, as F. Scott Fitzgerald and his family had done a generation earlier. Vachon’s parents were serious about Catholic education; his mother, an intelligent, religious, self-educated woman, was especially ambitious for him because he was the elder of her two sons, bright and anxious to please. She made sure John attended the local military high school for Catholic boys even though it was all the way across town and meant a long ride in his khaki uniform both ways every school day. And he chose St. Thomas, the city’s Jesuit college for men, to get his bachelor’s degree with a major in English literature. He studied romantic poetry, and years later, with little encouragement, he could still recite Browning’s “Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead!”
Finally, having announced his intention to write or teach, he competed for and won a scholarship to the graduate school of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. A hero to his family in the midst of the Great Depression, he studied Elizabethan literature at the university until, before the year’s end, a drinking bout cost him his scholarship. So that he could tell his parents the bad news in the context of some good news, he took the first job he could find—assistant messenger boy in Stryker’s unit in the Department of Agriculture. In the job interview Vachon met Stryker for the first time. Stryker asked him if he was interested in photography, and Vachon said no. But Vachon was soon promoted to keeper of the FSA files and got to know Stryker’s photographic team. Inevitably he began taking pictures around Washington. He had little interest in politics (ever), but he was socially concerned and his first efforts reflected that. His amateurish prints interested Stryker and prompted Walker Evans to teach him to use an eight-by-ten view camera. Then Vachon graduated to the 35-mm Leica and began to practice in town and on brief trial runs in the Midwest. In November 1940 Stryker gave him a raise to $150 a month and the rank of junior photographer. Vachon badly needed the money. By then he had a wife, Penny, and a two-year-old daughter, named Ann; another child on the way was their son, Brian. Their second daughter, Gail, came nearly ten years later.
Over time Stryker’s political agenda changed from depicting hard times to discovering better times and, after Pearl Harbor, to showing greatness and patriotism in the land. Early in 1942 he sent Vachon back to the heartland for his last and longest FSA assignment, six months of shooting on the Great Plains all the way to Idaho. When Vachon returned, the Office of War Information had taken over the photo section, and Vachon photographed the war effort as long as Stryker stayed with the OWI. He then followed Stryker to New York City, where they worked together on setting up an FSA type of photo project for Standard Oil, which had image problems of its own because of its pre-war ties to I. G. Farben in Nazi Germany. It was not Vachon’s dish, and he was almost relieved when the Army draft caught him and sent him for basic training to Camp Blanding, Florida. But he knew he had a job waiting for him with Stryker at Standard after the war.
Vachon missed going overseas, so at war’s end he was discharged and grabbed the chance to spend 1946 in Poland photographing postwar conditions for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. It was to give him his first stay in Europe. As it turned out, it also gave him his first look at a kind of reality that he had only imagined, and it took some getting used to. In his FSA photos there had not been a single scene of violence other than that of poverty and nature.