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John Vachon: A Certain Look

May 2024
14min read
He was a consummate professional whose photographs spanned the years from the Great Depression to the death of the great picture magazines. He traveled many thousands of miles but never really left the American heartland.

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. 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. Now from Poland he wrote to his wife that he had stumbled upon a village that was in the process of being burned to the ground by arsonists who might have been bandits but, then again, might have been soldiers, and the sight had badly shaken him.
“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.
Vachon had some idiosyncrasies too. He kept a record of every photo trip he ever took after 1937—there were 456, all told—and listed every airport used, every interstate train ridden, and every state in which he’d had a haircut. He also kept track of how much time he’d spent in each of forty-nine states (he never visited Alaska); for example, four months, nineteen days, eleven hours in California; fourteen days, six hours in Oklahoma. On a map at his apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, he marked off every U.S. county he’d set foot in (flyovers didn’t count) and, by 1971, had totaled 2,479 of them (out of about 3,000). He kept a journal, too, so that he knew pretty well everything that had ever happened to him since his Washington days, and even before. Out of town he liked to visit jazz clubs, burlesque shows, and good restaurants on waterfronts and in warehouse districts, and he listed each one of these in his journal so as not to forget the good places in case he returned.
And he was always researching the slower way to get anywhere and the longer way home. He never flew if he could go by train, preferably by night, so that he and the writer could sit up, play draw poker, drink whiskey, and look out at the little towns going by. (He hated to lose at poker, but if he won too much, he’d let his opponent win back something.) He’d get you to Dallas via Chicago or to San Francisco via Las Vegas. Once in New Zealand we came home via Sydney, Australia, because neither of us had been there, although it added two thousand miles to our original flight plan to the West Coast. And from anyplace on the continent of Europe, he would route himself through Ireland. He also had faith that you could always get where you wanted to go, and he never missed. Once, in New Delhi, where we’d gone in 1962 to try to cover the China-India border war in northern Assam, we found an Indian army press officer surrounded by reporters and refusing to allow the Indian air force to fly any of us to the staging areas outside the Assamese capital city of Gauhati because, of course, India was losing. Vachon, however, soon learned that an Indian commercial airliner was still flying its regular twice-a-day Delhi-Gauhati schedule and so got us to Gauhati before nightfall. We stayed five days and returned to New Delhi to find many reporters still waiting for transportation.
He was always researching the slower way to get anywhere and the longer way home. He never flew if he could go by train.
The dark side to all this was a personal life beset by tragedy. His first wife suffered from emotional illness and, in 1959, committed suicide. His second marriage, to Marie Francoise Fourestier, was much happier and gave him another daughter, Christine, and a son, Michael. But alcoholism plagued him, limited his career after Look, and undoubtedly hastened his death. It was also a problem on Look story assignments, and there were writers who simply declined to travel with him. Other writers, myself included, probably did him more harm than good by enabling him to believe his drinking was tolerable. Although he never had to face reality, somehow, through cold showers, coffee, and lots of delays, we never came home without our story.
He used to say he drank because he liked to. He refused help through Alcoholics Anonymous or therapy. And the drinking wasn’t all. I felt he also got an excessive kick out of the risks we sometimes had to take: on a police story, there might be a wild chase; on some backwater landing strip, a hairy landing; in a riot, a flying brick or police nightstick. Taking the chance and surviving seemed to afford him release and a kind of grim satisfaction. Something was boiling inside him that he couldn’t handle, so he finessed it with booze or bravery. Once, when we were producing our picture story of a geological expedition in the Antarctic, he wanted to take a picture from a C-119 cargo plane of a planned parachute supply drop as we were flying two thousand feet above the South Pole. His solution was to tie his ankle to my ankle, lean far out the cabin door while I held on to an inner beam, and, using a frostproof view camera, dangle outside in minus seventy degrees Fahrenheit until he saw the drop falling away and got the amazing picture he wanted. Neither one of us had been too prudent, but he seemed to enjoy it much more than I did.
Vachon faced his own death with great courage, but again he seemed almost bemused by his suffering and was going gently. I saw him at home a few days before he died. He knew and I knew, but we talked about the Antarctic, the best trip we had ever taken together even though we got only six pages in the magazine. He had come to terms with his death, I think, but perhaps not yet with his life. He had always had a sense of humor; but there was no soul-searching talk in him. He had depended on his friends to protect him, and the rage in him just never came out.
Fortunately his professional life ended on a happier note. With Look gone, he had continued to work as often as he could. He photographed two stories for Vermont Life, a magazine edited at the time by his son Brian. And in the spring of 1973 the Guggenheim Foundation awarded him a fellowship in photography for a yearlong project. In his application he had described the work as a “documentation of the vanishing American small town, a focal point of rural life that. . . began to change and disappear about the time of the Second World War . . . [towns] far enough removed from urban centers to have retained an individuality.” He said he was going to photograph “the main street . . . band stands, the vacant lot. . . church suppers . . . lodge meetings, the county fair . . . the country lawyer . . . the hardware merchant, the town joker . . . [and] human activities . . . sitting on the porch swing . . . flying kites . . . picnics.” His plan was to work in the American heartland again. “Traveling by car,” he promised Guggenheim and himself, "I will be taking a last look at America as it used to be.” When he died, the project was unfinished. He had already made two trips. He told me he was planning a third.

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