North Carolina, Tobacco, and Marion Post Wolcott

North Carolina, Tobacco, and Marion Post Wolcott

Looking at other photos of tobacco barns I came across an image by Marion Post Wolcott. She was one of the later FSA photographers working in the late 1930’s with John Vachon, Jack Delano, and John Collier. According to Jack Hurley she was handicapped in her photography by her youth and beauty.

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Apparently she was one of those unusual people that most all fall in love with upon simply meeting them. Roy Stryker who was the director of the photographic or “Research” division of the FSA was a friend of Dr. Howard Odum at UNC Chapel Hill and had supplied him with two photographers to assist in his sociological research. Dorothea Lange came to Chapel Hill in the summer 1939. She started a project working for Howard Odum and his associate Harriet Herring. She had immersed herself in the bright leaf tobacco culture.
This was the project Wolcott decided to further pursue when she arrived in October the same year. She and Herring went out into the countryside of Chatham County and encountered, in Wolcott’s words. “came across a very interesting settlement of Negro owners with well equipped large farms, some of the ‘grown’ children going to college, etc.”

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Tobacco barns. Negro owner living in Mebane in prosperous Negro settlement between Carr and Cedar Grove, Orange County, North Carolina.

I was motivated to go to the Library of Congress website and look at Wolcott’s photographs from North Carolina. There are 1259 images in the files. Most have been digitized and can be viewed, all are in the public domain since they are US Govt property. I did not look at all except as thumbnails. Moving through, them stopping periodically to enlarge and study an image took up most of my afternoon. It is an amazing collection of images varying from the traffic at a Duke-UNC football game to black farm workers working to hang tobacco in the barns of Caswell County.

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There are many pictures of the auction barns in Durham showing what a festive time was had by most.

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There is a wonderful essay on tobacco and its production by former Organization of American Historians President Pete Daniel that discusses Wolcott’s time in North Carolina in great detail.
In his book, Marion Post Wolcott, A Photographic Journey, (University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, 1989), F. Jack Hurley points out that photographic art was not Marion’s goal. She was far more interested in what the photograph could do to further educate and influence people in the subject or issue at hand. She thought the photographic image was most important in what it could say about our world. In her speech to the Women in Photography conference she made this very clear. “My principal concern,” she said, “is to challenge photographers to document, in mixed media if they wish, or even just record, in still photographs as well as film or video, our present quality of life, the causes of malaise in society,and the world- and the evidence of it.”
Marion Post Wolcott was an important person in photography. Although perhaps less well known than some of the other FSA photographers she had considerable impact. Photographically her goal was the influential image. Much of her work aimed to use photography as a serious documentary means to support and strengthen written and oral research. She had the the help of a master propagandist, planner, and liberal in Roy Stryker who was always her advocate. Her work in Chapel Hill delighted Howard Odum and the photographs greatly supplemented the work done in his thirteen county regional sociological study.

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