- Historic Sites
John Vachon: A Certain Look
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
“You read that a village burned down,” he wrote, “or there was a war, or you see a picture of it, but Christ, when you really see that happen. . . . I wish there was a word I could tell you about all this, but there isn’t. And the helplessness and stupidity of myself . . . I went down in the field with my camera, and made some pictures at first—long shots, of people all over the field with the burning village in the background, long shots of the fire, and a few close-ups of women dragging pigs. But I’m not a Weegee [the incomparable New York newspaper crime photographer]. I couldn’t possibly go up to the people I saw and make pictures of them. . . .” However, one of Vachon’s long shots sufficed. It showed a family in panic with a loaded wagon escaping the burning village under a smoke-heavy sky. Many newspapers and magazines published the shot, which seemed to sum up a widespread feeling in the world at that time that although the war was over, peace had yet to come.
The Polish experience had another effect, less political than professional. Upon his return to New York and to Stryker at Standard Oil, Vachon felt uncomfortable going back to a job making pictures for a public relations effort. (In 1944 in Venezuela for the oil company, he had photographed a naked child walking a burro past a drilling rig, and someone promptly sent Stryker a cable in New York saying Vachon had “set back Standard Oil’s public relations 35 years.”) Meanwhile, Look ’s editor, Daniel D. Mich, a former Milwaukee newsman, had heard about Vachon from the former FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein, who had recently joined the staff. Although Look ’s style during its first decade lacked the class and professionalism of Life, the magazine was changing to gear up for the postwar world. Vachon saw his future there and took it; his time would span Look ’s emergence as a credible competitor for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, its huge gains in circulation (from two million to eight million in one five-year period), and the comeuppance, when the magazine industry realized that the marketplace would not sustain great mass-circulation general-interest magazines forever.
He excelled at portraits because, for him, a portrait was a photograph of something ordinary going on—a person having his picture taken.
Between the rise and the fall, Vachon became a master of picture-story photography. As Mich had developed it, the picture story was the joint responsibility of writer and photographer. The writer “produced” the story; that is, he or she served as a kind of director in the field, then supervised the picture layout after the darkroom had developed the photographer’s film, and wrote the text. The photographer’s job was to provide photo coverage in the field so complete that there was nothing missing that might prevent a solid story from being told. Together the writer and the photographer created a factual feature that had the feel of a plotted tale, different from a magazine article or a photo documentary, which were more the stock-in-trade, respectively, of the Post and Life. Of course, each of the three magazines used all three forms, but the emphasis of each publication helped position it against the others in the battle for a share of the market. The picture story worked for Look, but if the format had a victim, it was the photographer. He had to accept the rigors of the system, entrust his precious negatives to manic darkroom boys, let writers and art directors choose and crop his prints because he would be off on another assignment as his shoot made its way through the editorial process, and, finally, read the magazine itself to find out what title, text, and ultimate spin had been put on his collaboration. Moreover, he had to share his credit line with the writer, sometimes not on the first page of the story, rarely on the contents page, and almost never on the cover. None of it, as I recall, ever fazed Vachon. “At first,” he once wrote, “I was bewildered about doing a kind of photography so totally different from what I had learned and practiced.” But he adjusted quickly. He wanted the system to work, because he was a professional. He also learned, when he was called upon to photograph picture stories about celebrities, that he could make a Vachon photo of anyone—not only Marilyn and Joe but also Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Nikita Khrushchev, Francisco Franco, Jawaharlal Nehru, John Kennedy, Tallulah Bankhead, Louis Armstrong, Daniel Berrigan, and many others.
When photographing celebrities, he learned that he could make a Vachon photo of anyone.
Finally, I believe, he loved the process for its own sake: the travel, the new places and different people, and the vagabond life, especially when the writer was a pal. He had a great capacity for friendship and a tolerance for writers’ idiosyncrasies; one of his favorite writer-traveling companions, Joseph Roddy, took his cello with him on all assignments. Another writer, David Zingg, carried his own cameras in an attaché case, practiced on the side, and ended up a professional photographer.