Marion Post Wolcott

A biographical sketch by Linda Wolcott-Moore

"As an FSA documentary photographer, I was committed to changing the attitudes of people by familiarizing America with the plight of the underprivileged, especially in rural America...  FSA photographs shocked and aroused public opinion to increase support for the New Deal policies and projects, and played an important part in the social revolution of the 30s" said Marion Post Wolcott.

 Beginning in September of 1938, Wolcott spent three and a half years photographing in New England, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.  A photographic pioneer on America's ragged economic frontier, Wolcottt survived illness, bad weather, rattlesnakes, skepticism about a woman traveling alone and the sometimes hostile reaction of her subjects in order to fulfill her assignments from the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Unique among FSA photographers, Wolcott showed the extremes of the country's rich and poor in the late 30's, its race relations, and the fertile land formed with government assistance, which revealed the benefits of federal subsidies.  Her work has a formal control, emotional reticence and keen wit.  Wolcott's creativity and her unfailing perseverance resulted in striking documentary images:  farmers harvesting the tobacco fields in Lexington, KY; affluent spectators at the races in Florida; coal miners and their families throughout West Virginia and farm laborers in North Carolina and Mississippi.
(Journal of the Print World, Spring, 1990)

Marion Post entered the 20th Century on June 7, 1910, one of two daughters of Marion (Nan) Hoyt Post and Dr. Walter Post.  The Posts were a prominent family in Montclair, New Jersey where Dr. Post was the local physician, a homeopathist, in those days, the leading type of medicine. The Posts ended their marriage when Marion was a young teenager, and she and sister Helen were packed off to boarding school.  At Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut, removed from the trials of her parents’ bitter and heart-rending divorce, Marion thrived in a progressive atmosphere which fostered open inquiry, flexibility and individuality.  Throughout those early years, she also had a very close, loving relationship with the Post’s black housekeeper, Reasie, a relationship that gave Marion an ease and empathy with the blacks she would later photograph in the fields and juke joints of the deep South.

On weekends and in the summer--whenever possible--she spent time with her mother, Nan, in her tiny Greenwich Village apartment in New York City.  Nan was working with Margaret Sanger helping to set up health and birth control clinics around the country, a pioneer in her own right and an inspiration to Marion.   In "The  Village," mother and daughter hung out with musicians, artists, writers and members of the theatrical crowd, went to art exhibits, lectures and concerts, and after graduation from Edgewood, Marion fell in love with, and began studying, modern dance.  At the same time she was working her way through school as a teacher of young children, pursuing her interest in early childhood education at the New School for Social Research, and then at New York University.

As the Great Depression began to impact the working people around her, she witnessed dramatic class differences among those living in the small Massachusetts town where she was then teaching. Each day she saw in her classroom the children of wealth and privilege; in the evening, the struggling millworkers and their children. Marion grew increasingly disillusioned with the "American System," as the town and the school closed down.

Soon after, in 1932, Marion traveled to Europe to study dance in Paris, and later, child psychology at the University of Vienna.  There she met Trude Fleischmann, a Viennese photographer with whom her sister Helen was studying.  Upon seeing Marion's first photographic images, Trude encouraged her to continue. "Sis," you've got a good eye," she exclaimed, a line Marion Post would never forget, although she was quite reticent about encroaching upon the territory of her sister, Helen, long considered the artist in the family.

Meanwhile, a horrified young Marion and Helen were witnessing the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe.  Of their friends, again many were musicians, artists, and young intellectuals. Many also were Jewish, and Marion watched as swastikas burned in front of the homes of her anti-Nazi friends, and their fields and fences were set ablaze.  She was further rocked by the assassination, during the winter of 1933-34, of Austrian Chancelor Dolfuss and the bombing of apartments of socialist workers near Vienna.  Lending a hand, she spent several months working in the local schools with the children of Austrian workers.

It was too dangerous, however, for her to stay; the University of Vienna had been closed, and Marion was told either to return home or give up her small allowance.  Back in the States, she took a teaching position at the progressive Hessian Hills School at Croton-on-Hudson.  Here she began taking more photographs and making her first prints.  Close to New York, she also became active in the League Against War and Fascism, and, together with Helen, helped Jews, including Trude Fleischmann, leave Europe and immigrate to the United States. She had friends in the socially and politically concerned Group Theatre who became both subjects and clients, and she published her first work in Stage Magazine.

Encouraged by her progress, a year later, at twenty-five, Marion moved to New York and began freelancing, even landing a picture on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.  She also began attending meetings of the New York Photo League, an important organization that was influencing many of the country's best young photographers.  There Marion met Ralph Steiner and Paul Strand who, upon seeing her work, asked her to join a group of serious young photographers who met at Steiner's apartment to discuss and critique each other's photography.  She also worked with director Elia Kazan on People of the Cumberlands, a film about labor organizing in the South. This experience introduced Marion to the southern part of the United States and to a group of southern liberals involved in efforts to effect social change.

 Needing more certain wages, Marion accepted a position as a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. As a young woman, however, she was required to do stories on the latest fashion and events for the ladies' page, hardly compelling assignments for a young woman of 25 with her background and experiences! Mentioning her frustrations to Ralph Steiner one day, he took her portfolio with him to Washington, to Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration.  Stryker was impressed, asked to meet her.  So, armed with letters of recommendation from no less than Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner, Marion Post set off for Washington.  She was hired immediately, and joined the ranks of the other FSA photographers, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, and Arthur Rothstein, among them.  From 1938 through 1941, Marion produced many of the most vividly moving of the more than 100,000 images in the FSA archives, reflecting her many years of social and political involvement, her strength and independence, and her deep sensitivity to the children and families of the less fortunate.

The Farm Security Administration had been mandated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist American farmers who had suffered grievously during the Depression.  Families were stranded and starving; soil was worn out, unfit for production.  In addition to "selling" the New Deal's agricultural programs to the public and to decision-makers in Washington, Roy Stryker had another mission--to thoroughly make an historical document of America, during these difficult times, with the use of photographs.

Marion Post's photographs did both.  Her work for the FSA is known for her contrasting images of the wealthy and the poor, of migrant farmers in their shacks and  affluent spectators at the horse races, of the destitute standing in line waiting to be paid and of the more fortunate being served at a private beach club.  Her images also reveal a positive, sometimes witty, even irreverent side of the depressed America--negroes jitterbugging in a jukejoint, a baptism in a Kentucky creek, dignity and pride in the faces of the homeless, young white couples on a Saturday night in a jukejoint booth, a Sunday night church supper.

She also had a deep connection with the land and produced landscapes of immense scale and beauty--planting of a luxuriously fertile rolliing cornfield just before a storm, a New England town in deep drifts after a blizzard, a massive horse-drawn reaper moving across the Great Plains.  Later, on our Virginia farms, she would pick up a handful of rich, dark, fertile earth, let it sift through her hands, and waft in its fragrance, a truly organic and nearly orgasmic experience.

And always, her photographs suggest the political.  Segregation and discrimination; humiliation and condescension;  labor movements; eroded, worn-out land; dirty, sick, malnourished children; overcrowded schools.  She traveled primarily alone, got tired and lonely and sick and burned out.  She had to wrap her camera in hot water bottles to keep the shutters from freezing;  write captions at night in flimsy motel rooms while fending off the men trying to enter through the transoms; deal with southern social workers, suspicious cops, chiggers and mosquitoes; mud, heat, and humidity.

She picked beans with her subjects; she changed their kids' diapers, and washed their faces.  Why did they allow her into their lives…to get the images that reveal more than an objective document of the times, images that show a connection of spirit, the dignity, pride, despair, and hope  in the faces of these people she cared about, and understood.  They liked her; they knew she cared; they thought that maybe she would, could, help. That the images would get back to others who would, and could, help.  She gave them hope; and, she did what she had to do, with a passion and commitment that kept her on the backroad alone for up to a month at a time.

In 1941, Marion met the man she wanted to marry--Lee Wolcott, a handsome, bright assistant to Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture under President Roosevelt.  Marion completed her assignments and left the FSA in order to raise a family, tend their farms, and later to live and travel extensively overseas.  Both passionate, eager, curious, intellectual, they developed interesting modern art and music collections; had interesting, involved friends; were deeply committed to the raising and educating of four accomplished children, and with mentoring their grandchildren.  Although she did not again work as a "professional," largely due to the demands of family and overseas living and traveling, she captured numerous serious images of farming in rural Virginia, and later in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. Upon returning to the States, she taught and photographed American Indian children in New Mexico, did a series on the ‘70’s counter-culture in Isla Vista, California, and in Mendocino, California.

She also was actively involved with the photography communities in both San Francisco and Santa Barbara where she helped, encouraged, and inspired, and was loved by many younger artists, worked with museum and gallery curators, and, in the 80’s, at the urging of the same, undertook a massive project to produce an archive of fine prints of her work of both the FSA and later years.   As knowledge of her work rapidly spread, she became a much soughtafter speaker who’s vision, charm, wit, and concern for social and political reactionism rewarded  her listeners with much to chew on.  They, of course, had no way of knowing how she had agonized, in her extreme modesty and fear, over every word, with weeks of research, note-taking, writing and re-writing in preparation.

 Marion Post Wolcott’s FSA work has been widely collected, exhibited and published and is in the permanent collections of most, if not all, major museums in the United States and abroad.  She felt fortunate and honored to receive retrospective shows of her work at many major galleries throughout the country, and shortly before her death at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the International Center of Photography in New York City.  She also received many prestigious awards, including the Oakland Museum's Dorothea Lange Award, the Society of Photographic Educator's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Press Photographers' Lifetime Achievement Award.

A warm, bright light went out when, after a year of staunchly battling lung cancer, Marion Post Wolcott died November 24, 1990, in Santa Barbara, California.  Her grace and wit, charm and intellect, silliness and concern, activism, good cooking, thoughtfulness, love, and devotion are sorely missed.  There is so much more to be said; it belongs in a  place of personal memoirs; it needs time.

© Linda Wolcott-Moore 1999

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