Post Wolcott: New Insights

By Gay Block

The Friends of Photography has published the first monograph of important Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer, Marion Post Wolcott. It contains 33 black and white plates, a fine introductory essay by Sally Stein, and a chronology of Post Wolcott’s life and work.
The Stein essay accomplishes just what an introduction should: it deciphers certain of the photographs, clarifying all the possible symbols to support the premise of Post Wolcott’s strength and uniqueness. This makes for exciting, eye-opening reading. Stein shows the ways in which Post Wolcott dealt with the sociological and political themes of her time in a very specific way”… she still appears to be an anomalous member of the FSA, one whose distinctive interests constitute an unsentimental provocative departure from the dominant themes of FSA photography.” These themes include the “customary myths of American democracy: the ‘concept of responsible leadership; the belief in self-government; the concept of individual liberty and of opportunity.” However, she continues Marion Post Wolcott’s work embodies a “recurrent concern with such difficult and persistently divisive issues as class and race.”

The text explains and the pictures prove that Post Wolcott was concerned with drawing human issues as they existed and did not try to give hope, as did some FSA photographers. Stein illustrates this with FSA project director Ray Stryker’s statement about Russell Lee: “I always felt Russell was saying ‘Now here is a fellow who is having a hard time, but with a little help he’s going to be alright.’ And that’s what gave me courage.”

From Stein’s essay, and from excerpts of letters between Post Wolcott and Stryker, we can infer a rebelliousness in Post Wolcott, “both in her manner and in her photography, which Stryker must have found unnerving.” Stein reports that Post Wolcott did not experience the same freedom as the other photographers on the FSA team, the freedom she needed to follow her instincts with sensitive subject matte.

However, the reason that I am most grateful to the Friends of Photography for publishing this book is that it includes many important images heretofore buried in FSA files. Stein concludes. “… the most distinctive photographs of Post Wolcott challenge us far more than many of the typical FSA images….. They prompt is to consider what other avenues might have been pursued by a 1930s documentary project. No less importantly, they provide us with succinct, through fragmentary, insights regarding some of the issues that were not directly addressed by the New Deal and that remain in large measure unresolved today.”