Women On The Homefront Railroad: Jack Delano’s Epic 1943 Portraits

In 1943, Jack Delano (born Jacob Ovcharov in Ukraine, August 1, 1914 – died Puerto Rico, August 12, 1997) was despatched by the Office of War Information to record life at the Chicago & North Western Railroad roundhouse in Clinton, Iowa.

 

Mrs. Irene Bracker, mother of two, a wiper at the roundhouse.

Mrs. Irene Bracker, mother of two, a wiper at the roundhouse., Clinton, Iowa

 

Delano moved to the US with his family in 1923. After graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he bought a camera in Europe and, realising there was more money to be had in photography than oil painting, produced a study of coal mining conditions in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, for the Federal Art Project. Soon after, Delano received a telegram from Farm Security Administration director Roy Stryker saying that there was a job opening at $2,300 a year as photographer in his outfit. Did he want to work with the likes of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein? “Well, I was never more interested in anything in my life,” Delano recalled.

“Roy gave you the feeling that he knew more about everything that you did and, above all, he knew more about America that you did, by far. And that’s one of the things that I loved about Roy and one of the things I got most from him was a feeling about the United States, about America. This enthusiasm and love for the detail and the deeper meaning of everything American was something that he must have transmitted to everybody.”

 

 

Mrs. Dorothy Lucke, a roundhouse wiper.

Mrs. Dorothy Lucke, a roundhouse wiper.

 

“I’ve always felt that photographs for me were primarily for reproduction and for mass distribution. A photograph is something for lots and lots of people to see,” said Delano. “I respect people like Paul Strand and others who make beautiful prints for museums and exhibitions and I think there is . . . that kind of photography is one thing and my kind of photography is another thing.”

Delano photographed infrastructure and rolling stock, but he was no better than when recording the people who did the work. His portraits of the women employed to keep the trains going are glorious and big in scale, emphasising the workers’ strength of arm and spirit.

Like Paul Strand, Delano possessed “a real respect for the thing in front of him”.

 

Mrs. Viola Sievers sprays an H-class locomotive with steam.

Mrs. Viola Sievers sprays an H-class locomotive with steam.

Wipers clean an H-class locomotive

Wipers clean an H-class locomotive

 

“To do justice to the subject has always been my main concern,” Delano wrote in his autobiography Photographic Memories. “Light, color, texture and so on are, to me, important only as they contribute to the honest portrayal of what is in front of the camera, not as ends in themselves…

“I thought the camera could be a means of communicating how I felt about the problems facing the country and that therefore I could perhaps influence the course of events. I thought I could portray ordinary working people in photographs with the same compassion and understanding that Van Gogh had shown for the peasants of Holland with pencil and paintbrush.”

 

Roundhouse workers on their lunch break.

Roundhouse workers on their lunch break.

Mrs. Elibia Siematter on her lunch break.

Mrs. Elibia Siematter on her lunch break.

Mrs. Thelma Cuvage sifts and cleans sand for use in locomotives.

Mrs. Thelma Cuvage sifts and cleans sand for use in locomotives.

Mrs. Marcella Hart and Mrs. Viola Sievers clean an H-class locomotive.

Mrs. Marcella Hart and Mrs. Viola Sievers clean an H-class locomotive.

Mrs. Marcella Hart, mother of three, a wiper at the roundhouse.

Mrs. Marcella Hart, mother of three, a wiper at the roundhouse.

Mrs. Elibia Siematter, a sweeper at the roundhouse.

Mrs. Elibia Siematter, a sweeper at the roundhouse.

Wipers clean an H-class locomotive.

Wipers clean an H-class locomotive.

Cloe Weaver, mother of four, a roundhouse helper training to operate the turntable.

Cloe Weaver, mother of four, a roundhouse helper training to operate the turntable.

 

A train is approaching us!

The glare of the headlight

With a WHOOSH of thunder as it flies by us.

The brakeman gets down from the cupola and watches it go by

Two red lights and a white one pass us

The white one waves up and down.

We answer

Then back again to the drone

I throw a cigarette out of the window

It whirls off in the backwash scattering sparks wildly like fireworks

The blackness again.

 – Things I Cannot Photograph, Jack Delano