Jack Delano (1914-1997) enjoyed a long and varied career as a photographer, filmmaker, cartoonist, writer and composer, but he will forever be linked with the three years he spent with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). During the depths of the Great Depression, the federal government had sent out a group of FSA photographers that included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and Gordon Parks, ostensibly to document the conditions of the agricultural community. Instead, what they ended up with was a portrait of America itself — hundreds of thousands of negatives, color transparencies and prints that still retain their power 75 years later. Delano joined this stellar group in 1940 and covered New England, the South and Puerto Rico.
To celebrate the centenary of Delano's birth, Trinity College has installed "Jack Delano Photographer" in the Widener Gallery at the Austin Arts Center. Jack Delano was born Jacob Ovcharov in Kiev, Ukraine, but his family moved to Philadelphia when he was a boy. He took the name "Jack" from the boxer Jack Dempsey and "Delano" from a schoolmate. The 42 photographs in this show, co-curated by his son, Pablo Delano, who is a Trinity professor of fine arts, offer a survey of his early career. As if to drive home the indelible link above, the show is weighted heavily on the FSA material, for reasons that will be obvious to any visitor. Some of the images evoke a near mystical American past where people worked their fingers to the bones and were content with their humble lot. Others, however, show the dark side of that image, especially at a time when American were drifting for work, desperately poor and, in the case of the Deep South, locked in a racist society. All of Delano's photographs have one uniting trait: the dignity of his subjects.
Most of the images on view are in glorious black and white, with a few color documentary shots of the Vermont State Fair from 1941. Though it's rare to see color prints from FSA negatives — using what was then a novelty, Kodachrome — they are no match for the stark beauty of the black and white images. For example, in one particularly innovative shot, Delano used a mirror to capture a Quaker family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner in Ledyard, Conn. A table full of pies and cakes fill the foreground, echoing the famous painting by Norman Rockwell about the same time, "Freedom From Want."
Nearby, an often reproduced image of a Polish tobacco farming couple in Windsor Locks in Sept. 1940 lights up the room with their shared laughter. And, not far away, in Canterbury, Conn., a Finnish immigrant couple work at their poultry farm, a real-life "American Gothic."
But it was the desolation of a segregated South where Delano's gifts really blossomed. "We were able to highlight some of the pictures my father felt were his strongest," said Pablo Delano. "For example, he spent a long time in Greene County, Georgia, mostly photographing the day-to-day lives and rituals of African Americans, including some individuals, then elderly, who had been born into slavery."
Delano immersed himself in the lives of black Georgia farm families, the way that Walker Evans earlier dissected the lives of poor whites in Alabama. Though he documented the poverty and poor condition of the farmland, Delano also showed the people working hard to get the crops in, provide for families and even enjoy each other's company. In one poignant image, a mother of nine suffering from cancer is caught in worried profile. Behind her, pinned to the wall, are the newspaper Society Pages (read: white society). Likewise, at the Durham, N.C. bus station in 1940, a group of black travelers mill around beneath the "Colored Waiting Room" sign. One dapper fellow seems to be checking out the magazine cover, "True Story: Hitler's Love Life Revealed."
At a Library of Congress symposium on the FSA in 1994, Jack Delano explained, "I had never been in the Deep South before. I had never felt what it meant to be in a racist society…I had to learn that you can't shake hands with a black man when you're introduced. You can't call him 'mister.' You have to call him by his first name. These experiences were difficult for me."
The FSA was responsible for more than launching Delano's career; it introduced him to Puerto Rico, where he was sent in Nov. 1941 to document conditions on that island and the Virgin Islands, both U.S. protectorates. He fell immediately under Puerto Rico's spell and his FSA images from there included in this exhibition reveal the same grinding poverty and the same grim determination to defy the odds that he saw in Georgia. After World War II, Delano moved to Puerto Rico, raised his family there and became a major figure in the island's cultural life. But that's another story, one worthy of its own exhibit.
JACK DELANO PHOTOGRAPHER (1914-1997): A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION EXHIBITION, runs through March. 14, Widener Gallery, Austin Arts Center, Trinity College, Hartford. 860-297-2199.Gallery hours: 1 p.m.-6 p.m., closed Saturdays.
On March 5, two films associated with this exhibition will be shown at 7 p.m., in the Boyer Auditorium, Life Sciences Building: "Autografo: Jack Delano," a short film biography made in Puerto Rico in 2009 will be screened along with "Los Peloteros" (1951), a feature film directed by Delano, who wrote the musical score.