Monday, November 7, 2011

John Vachon and the Bone Lady's Beginnings

While looking over images taken by the Farm Security Administration photographers, I kept being drawn to those by John Vachon. So, I wasn't surprised when I saw his picture and felt a sort of kinship with him. This happens sometimes, both in person and through photographs. I did a little more reading about him and found that he was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, receiving a bachelor's degree from St. Thomas College in 1934.

A couple of years later, he went to work for the FSA in Washington filing the many photographs taken by people such as Dorothea Lange. This, of course, piqued an interest in photography. After spending his weekends on the streets of DC with a borrowed Leica, encouraged by folks such as Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, he joined the ranks of these noted photographers in 1937. The rest, as they say, is history.

As I was reading this, my imagination went to work creating a scenario where he would have driven by our farm, just off the highway, sometime around 1962, on his way to Bemidji where he took a photo of a used car lot with Paul Bunyan at the gate (yes, the photo was taken in 1939, we're pretending here). Paul Bunyan was a pretty big deal in Minnesota back when I was a kid, this larger than life, folk tale lumberjack. For several summers, we would ride the train up to Bemidji to visit our cousins for a few days, a visit which usually included an afternoon at the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park.  We loved riding that train, just my sister, Jane, and I. My mother's second cousin was the conductor, so we had someone to look after us along the way. We rode those rails as the brave adventurers we imagined ourselves to be.

I like to think that Vachon, all those years ago, might have stopped in our parent's cafe that was just up the road from our farm, in yet another small town on the main highway that runs between St. Paul and Bemidji. Maybe he had a stack of my mother's pancakes for breakfast, or he'd come through in the evening and had supper, fried chicken being the calling card. It didn't matter that he'd moved out east long before that time. I placed him on that highway as a way to have him come to life for me. And he did.

I was taken back to an evening when I was probably around six or seven years old. My parents, in a very atypical moment, decided to go out for the evening. Where? I have no idea, but they were away and it was just we three younger siblings at home. Shortly after they left, we noticed that several cars seemed to be parked at the corner where our country road met the highway. It was so out of the ordinary that we started speculating about it, and in my little mind I started imagining the worst: our parents had gotten into a car accident and would never be coming home again. I sat on my sister's bed, peering through the round metal headboard and out the window that was closest to the scene on the highway.

After a time of no answers, the oldest of the three of us, Christy, who was probably 12, was dispatched to ride the bike, yes, The bike, up to the corner to see what was going on. When she didn't immediately return, my mind went into overdrive. I had not developed any coping skills for such an event. Fear was the driving force and it hit me pretty hard. I might have prayed, 'cause that's what we'd been taught to do, but it didn't seem to alleviate my fear and I wasn't close to anything that remotely resembled peace of mind. I watched and waited. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, but was probably no more than half an hour, Christy returned, and our parents shortly after that.

We found out that a bad car accident had happened just up the road and lives were lost. My parents had come on the scene just before arriving home, but had not been involved.

Some time later, I was up at the filling station on the corner, where my mom's best friend, Lu, and her husband, Hank, lived. I had become friends with her grandson, Michael, and together we would explore the woods behind the garage. It was there, in the woods, I saw the two cars with wrinkled hoods and broken windshields. One of them was a pea green color. Odd, isn't it, how the little details remain?  This all came to mind when I was looking into John Vachon's life. Perhaps it was just the idea of him taking photos while driving around the countryside in a car from that long ago era, or the romanticized notion that he may have driven right by our farm those many years ago.

John Vachon went on to become a staff photographer for Life and then Look magazine, returning to Minnesota as a guest lecturer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts shortly before his death in 1975. I love his photos of rural people and times, but, I have to say, his city scenes, especially those taken in the rain, jump out at me. There's something about city streets in the rain.... These photographs make me want to walk right into them, even with the rain coming down (especially with the rain coming down), on my way to a cafe, or a movie, perhaps "River of No Return," starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, for which Vachon was the sole photographer while they were on location in Alberta, Canada.

And, although this all happened long after Vachon had completed his assignment for the FSA, we still would have made pretty good subjects for that whole rural poverty thing.

Yeah, that's me. The Bone Lady was beginning to form within.

All of the photographs, except for the one of me, of course, were taken by John Vachon throughout his career. None of his photographs are of people I know, but they could have been. These are among my favorites of his. They illustrate a time and place that sometimes seems like yesterday.


  1. Hello Teresa:
    Although we have some knowledge of the work of Dorothea Lange, we have not heard of John Vachon. His photographs certainly have an arresting quality to them, drawing the viewer in and making one feel part of the scene. Just as the Lange pictures, they capture time and place with an extraordinary quality of observation and yet with a minimum of detail.

    And, what fun to have tried to imagine the link between your life on the farm and JV. It is, indeed, intriguing to think how life patterns might have changed if only a different connection had been made between people and places. A moment in time is all that is needed for things to change for ever.

  2. Oooh Teresa...this is an amazing post. I enjoyed it so much.

  3. You are an artist, and this very artistic and touching post shows me how much of one. I am humbled and moved by these pictures, every last one. Thank you so much for introducing me to John Vachon.

  4. Oooh, this was a journey! Yes, you really do feel as if you could step right into any of his photographs. How scary it had to be waiting to find out what happened on the road when your parents were gone. The best photo was the one of you and the antler. You did fit right in with his pictures. Another time. Another place. Thanks for the journey. :)

  5. Thanks for this Teresa. Anyone about the same age as us lived this but it didn't seem like it at the time of course.

  6. What wonderful photos, Teresa. He was a great photographer. I love the city in rain-photos, also in real life. I love to walk in the rain in the city.
    It's a lovely photo of you. I can understand that you were scared back then. Minutes are like hours when you don't know what has happened.
    Grethe `)

  7. I love the old photos and I love the story you've made of them. Speaking of Paul Bunyan and Babe, there was a story on TV last night about their continuing popularity...and all about the effort to get new lights for "Paul's Bobber," the water tower at Pequot Lakes. :-)

  8. Jane and Lance, I like imagining the possibilities had just such a moment in time occurred. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    TM, I'm glad you liked it. Thanks.

    DJan, What a nice thing to say. I thoroughly enjoyed putting this post together, even the revision process. Occasionally frustrating, but always fun. Thank You.

    Rita, Thank you. I actually recall when that picture was taken. I was put out (thus the crossed arms) because my play was interrupted and I was forced to "pose." I was not happy. :)

    One Fly, It was just life, wasn't it? I didn't see us as any different than anyone else.

    Grethe (Thyra), Those rain in the city photos make me want to make that happen soon, and I usually avoid cities!

    Yes, time has a completely different feel to it then, doesn't it?

    BLOG Nancy, The Bobber, just down the road! I had no idea. I'm so out of the loop. :)

    Thank you!

  9. Oh I do love that first photo of the rain, the street is so glass like it does beg one to enter, to walk into the scene.

  10. Such a captivating post, Teresa. Our imaginations can certainly take us to frightening spots, can't it? It can also take us through a great photograph and into the rain, as you just did with your words. Beautifully done.

  11. Carolyn, Thanks so much!

    Linda S., It's so atmospheric, isn't it? I can feel the rain.

    Penny, I have worked on letting go of fear. Worked on. Am still working on. :)

    Thank you very much.

  12. What an interesting post. I didn't know of John Vachon and these wonderful photos. You have given us a photography appreciation class with you own amazing imagination making it so much more interesting.
    You made time disappear and brought the characters of a "place" together

    Also...He could have taking that last photo. I think it's beautiful.

  13. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I had to Google Farm Security Administration photographers as they were completely unknown to me. What a wonderful collection of powerful photos I found on Google images, as are the ones you have included in your post.
    I love it how you were able to interweave John Vachon's movements into your own world - time is nothing.

  14. Hello again Teresa!
    About the city in rain. I guesss everyone remembers the dancing-scenescene with Gene Kelly in "Singing in the Rain". It is so joyful, and he's completely over the top! We wouldn't act that crazy? while we were walking in the rain in a city street, but the feeling inside is a happy one. Maybe you could - once - write about the city in rain?

  15. FARMLADY, I'm glad you enjoyed this. I enjoy smooshing time together and feeling what that feels like. Time is such a fluid thing.

    Thanks for your kind words, especially about that last photo. :)

    MARILYN, It's an amazing group of photos, isn't it? I love B & W photography and I never tire of these. "Time is nothing." Exactly so. Imagination is a wonderful thing!

    GRETHE (THYRA, OH, yes, that scene is a classic. I do hope to make that city in the rain thing happen. It will need to be soon or it will be snow! :) And you can be certain I will write about it. Thank you for the suggestion.

  16. Teresa, this seamless journey of you, the writer and appreciator, and John Vachon, the photographer, filled me with nostalgia. Were the times then simpler? I don't know.

    What I do know is that these pictures make me feel the times were harder. But I'm not even sure of that.

    The times we live in bring us their own aches and pains, joys and sorrows, and so some day eighty or one-hundred years from now, some appreciative reader may find photographs of our era and feel the same nostalgia I'm feeling.

    Does that come from knowing how the past ended? I'm not sure.

    The dictionary gives this definition of nostalgia: "a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations," so I suppose that I may be being sentimental for that time. But what I think I'm feeling is wistfulness for what my parents lived through.

    Thank you for introducing me to John Vachon's work and for sharing your imagination and your life with me.


  17. Dee, I have been looking at these and other photos from that era throughout my life and asked myself very similar, if not the same, questions. It's easy to be nostalgic about them and that time. Whether it was harder, I don't know. It certainly was not an easy time for many. We had electric lights, eventually inside plumbing, but we never gave thought to whether it was more difficult, so I wonder if our parents did. Was it just life as they knew it, also?

    I sometimes wish I could visit with my parents again and ask them these questions, have a greater understanding of who they were and how they felt. It's not easy for parents to reveal personal feelings to their children, but they did offer stories of their youth and I know they were not easy times at all for my father.

    Migrant workers, of course, during the Depression ,certainly wouldn't be waxing nostalgic for the good old days...

    These are questions I enjoy looking at from time to time, and I thank you for sharing yours with me.

  18. A fine piece of writing. I liked the interwoven theme involving the photography of John Vachon, the era, and memories from your childhood.

    Wonderful childhood photograph. Ah, that was a different era, wasn't it. Much more simple.

  19. Hi Bill, Thanks so much. It's an interesting process, weaving ideas together such as this and I have fun visiting that little girl that still lives inside me. I feel as though I've simplified my present life almost to the point of that time. Almost.

  20. I'm so happy you did the John Vachon post and a mighty fine job of writing. I loved your imagination and how you weave it into a story. The picture of you looks like it fits in with Vachons. You look like a waif of the depression. By the way, that is meant as a compliment. :)

  21. Thanks, Manzanita. I'm glad you encouraged me to follow through on it.

  22. Fantastic photos Teresa! You painted the scenes with your words so wonderfully. I love old photographs and relished the glimpse you gave us of what it was like to live in the U.S. Even though we lived those times in different countries the sentiments and worries you described are the same. You are so right about the pictures in the rain, it's the angle he's taken them.. up the street, makes you feel like you can just walk right into them, as you say!

  23. Hi Jane, The people and the stories are the same, only the location is different. Thank you for reading and responding. So nice to hear from you.

  24. Great post, Teresa! The FSA photographers did an amazing job. Keep up the good work. The sharecropper system was a form of economic slavery that never should have been.

  25. I want to wait until I have time to really read your latest posts before I respond. You'll have to forgive me: taking care of a 5 month-old wears me out and the evenings are early ones these days. And nap times are dedicated to holding her in my time for computers then. I have been following though. Always! Word verification: repenten!!!

  26. Teri, Not to worry. I completely understand. Have fun with that little sweetie-pie and come back when you can.

    Love the WV :) Funny.

  27. Nothing Happens In Isolation.I Like The Way You Weave Your Immediate History All Together Here.
    Yes,His Photos Are Rare & Beautiful,As Is The Future Bone Lady!

  28. Hi Tony! "Nothing happens in isolation." So true. Great photos aren't they?

    Thanks for the very kind words.

  29. I loved these photos as well, and actually have a number of these types of photos in my back stairwell, postcard-style photos, photos on cardboard of children on mules and people at work. They "speak" to me, anything between the turn of the century at the mid-40s...


    p.s. oh, and I half-way expected that you'd be making a link, somewhere, to "Mad Dog" Vachon. :-) I waited in vain!

  30. Hey Pearl, My time ringside has been somewhat limited. As opposed to you, of course. :) You should be holding up the signs and parading around the ring, don't you think? Another possible weekend gig. You city girl, you.

  31. Thanks for the great read. I had just returned from the beach with Doberwoman, who was just so jazzed from chasing sticks in the surf that she wouldn't let me sit at my desk: she has this annoyingly affectionate tactic of standing on her hind legs and wrapping her forearms around my neck and kissing me on my cheeks! Who can resist that tactic? But I found the answer: got  my iPad and went  to bed and she's curled up against my knee, chewing on her favorite bone. Thanks to you and Vachon, I might yet get some writing done tonight!

  32. R.W. It sounds like your Doberwoman and my Buddy are both working out of the same tactical handbook: How to Train Your Master. Buddy's working on emoting, especially using his eyes. Oh, and smiling. Big smiles and sitting up straight seem to be doing the trick for him. Works like a charm. That dawg.

    Hope your writing goes well.

  33. Dear Teresa, thank you so much for your lovely words this morning, I can't tell you how much it means! x

    I'm really glad to have found my way to your blog I always enjoy reading your writing and often go away still thinking of it and sometimes return for further visits.

    Sending hugs, Jane

  34. Dear Jane, What a fine way to begin a day, with your note. I see blogging as being very reciprocal. I love the exchanges that take place here. So, thank you for your kindness and I trust you had a good day and are looking forward to another. Hugs to you.

  35. Fabulous, fabulous photographs : thanks so much for bringing the work of Vachon to my attention.

  36. Frozen moments of time served cold force us to pause and consider. I too love the city in the rain.

  37. You are most welcome, Alan. I always enjoy seeing the old photographs you post. Another example of history books through images.

  38. Hello Cletis, I trust you're enjoying another fine Kentucky morning. The city in the have me longing for it again.

  39. A bit late, but here I am, interested in what you have to say, as always.
    Vachon is not as well known over here as in the US. His scenes depict an America which has long since disappeared, I take it? Is there any rural poverty as this today?

    A fascinating trip down your memory lane for me. I find all these snippets of people's lives, that I get in blogland, absolutely spell-binding. we are all our own historians now.

  40. Hi Friko, Vachon is in that middle ground, not as well-known as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, but there are some books out about his work. Unfortunately, rural poverty does still exist, very much so, as there is in cities, as well. "We" tend to hide it away now. No one wishes to call attention to it or the scope of it. It's a different type of poverty. Drug addiction has found its way into many rural areas, and that adds, of course, to the problem. Times have changed in America, and yet, they haven't.

    Yes, we are all our own historians. I'm enjoying the process of remembering and recording.