Wolcott, Marion Post (1910–1990)
Wolcott, Marion Post (1910–1990)
American photographer of rural America in the 1930s and 1940s . Born Marion Post in Montclair, New Jersey, on June 7, 1910; died in Santa Barbara, California, on November 24, 1990; youngest of two daughters of Walter Post (a physician) and Helen (Hoyt) Post (a trained nurse); attended Bloomfield High School, Bloomfield, New Jersey; graduated from the Edgewood School, Greenwich, Connecticut; attended the New School for Social Research and New York University; attended the University of Vienna; married Leon Oliver Wolcott (a government official), on June 6, 1941; children: Linda Wolcott Moore; Michael Wolcott; (stepchildren) Gail Wolcott; John Wolcott.
During the brief period between 1938 and 1942, when she was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Marion Post Wolcott produced a vast body of compelling black and white photographs documenting life in rural America during the Depression. Through the years, Wolcott's photographs, along with those of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange , and others, found their way into numerous exhibits, publications, and major collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Smithsonian Institution. Unlike many of her fellow FSA photographers, however, Wolcott slipped into obscurity. Her professional life ended abruptly in 1942, when, following her marriage to a widower with two small children, she resigned from her job to devote herself to her family. "You see, I guess I believed back then, or was supposed to believe, that my place was in the home," she told biographer Paul Hendrickson, who questioned the brevity of her career, "that I couldn't do both, you know, be a photographer, a would-be artist, and try to raise children. It just wasn't as easy in those days."
Wolcott was herself the product of a broken home, which may explain in part the choice she made. The youngest of two daughters of a physician, she spent her early years in Montclair, New Jersey, where her father had a homeopathic practice. The Posts underwent a bitter divorce when Wolcott was 14, after which she and her sister were sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. After an unhappy year there, she transferred to the Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she flourished in the more progressive environment. She spent weekends and summers with her mother Helen "Nan" Post , who had taken an apartment in Greenwich Village and was working with Margaret Sanger to help establish health and birth control clinics around the country. After graduation, Wolcott lived with her mother while teaching at a progressive elementary school in New Jersey and attending classes at New York's New School for Social Research and later at New York University. Interested in such diverse subjects as modern dance, anthropology, and educational psychology, she finally decided that her talents lay in teaching young children. She had several different teaching positions during the early 1930s, one in a small western Massachusetts mill town where she watched with growing disillusionment as the school and the town struggled against encroaching poverty, then shut down.
In 1932, with money inherited from her father, Wolcott went to Europe, traveling in Paris and Berlin, and winding up in Vienna, where she studied child psychology at the University of Vienna. At the time, her sister Helen Post Modley was studying photography with Viennese photographerTrude Fleischmann , who gave Wolcott her first little camera. "Sis, you've got a good eye," Fleischmann told Wolcott after developing some of her early pictures. Wolcott was encouraged, but dubious about entering the same field as her sister. Helen had always been the "artistic one."
With the frightening rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe, Wolcott returned to the United States, taking yet another teaching position and pursuing freelance photo assignments on the side. At age 25, she left teaching to devote herself to photography full time. After landing a photo on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, she joined the New York Photo League, where she was mentored by Ralph Steiner and Paul Strand. She also assisted on a film about labor organizing in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, and worked briefly as a full-time staff photographer on the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. In 1938, Paul Strand gave her a letter of introduction to Roy Stryker, head of the New Deal's Farm Security Administration Historical Section. Stryker offered her a trial position and she was off to Washington, D.C.
The FDA had been mandated by Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist farmers devastated by the Depression. In heading the Historical Section, Stryker's mission was both to document scenes of the country's economic plight and to sell the New Deal's agricultural programs. With these goals in mind, Wolcott traversed the South—the Carolinas, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. She also traveled less extensively in New England and the West. "Her views of migrant workers housing, coal mining families, and plantation farming demonstrate her flair for capturing subtle shifts in class and race hierarchies," writes Deborah L. Owen . "Her studies of New England architecture are clean and simple, yet reveal a bitterness in climate and attitude that lay beneath village surfaces."
Wolcott traveled alone, and according to her daughter, Linda Wolcott Moore , got lonely, tired, and eventually 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."
In order to achieve her revealing images, Wolcott first befriended her subjects, sometimes joining them to work in the fields, or tending the children left behind. Her daughter notes that Wolcott cared deeply about the people she photographed, and they in turn trusted her. "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."
Despite loneliness and fatigue, Wolcott never lost her sense of humor, as evidenced in a letter from the road dated July 18, 1940:
Chief Stryker! Calling all cars. Caution all photogs! Never take picture of pregnant woman sitting in rocking chair on sloping lawn while visiting family on Sunday afternoon! Consequences are—lady doesn't want photograph taken in present state, starts hurriedly to get up & run in house, but chair tips over backwards dumping (& embarrassing, not seriously damaging) her. Photog is surprised, sorry, tries to apologize, inquire after victim's health, etc., etc., & succeeds only in almost being mobbed & beaten & driven off by irate & resentful & peace loving member of family—DOZENS of them. (P.S.—Camera was saved.)
In 1941, Wolcott met and fell in love with Leon "Lee" Oliver Wolcott, the handsome assistant to Henry Wallace, secretary of agriculture under President Roosevelt, and a widower with two small children. They married following a whirlwind courtship. Though she continued with her photography a while longer, she missed her husband and was conflicted about working, especially because she had two stepchildren, Gail and John, to care for. Lee offered no encouragement for her to stay on the job. She resigned in February 1942 and entered what Hendrickson termed "almost fifty years of photographic hiding."
The Wolcotts settled outside Washington, D.C. Over the next ten years, they owned three different farms and had two more children, Linda and Mike. They were not easy times for Wolcott, who was sometimes overwhelmed with the chaotic household and her responsibilities as
a farm wife. "At the moment we are under a lot of strain and pressure, having bought a small dairy farm (1135 acres & 45 head) about 6 miles from this place, in January," she wrote her old boss Roy Stryker in April 1948, displaying none of the humor that had infused her earlier notes from the road. "We are still hoping to sell this, & move over there eventually but I'm afraid that this house is not to be sold very easily. Labor, both household & farm help, is still very scarce & poor & unreliable, making life difficult & keeping us tied down."
On several occasions Wolcott attempted to leave her husband, but she never followed through. Her neighbors from that time could attest to the tensions in the marriage. "I don't think I ever really heard Lee and Marion in an argument of their own," said Betty Campbell , Wolcotts' closest neighbor for a half-dozen years. "But I remember his stern voice with her now and then. He'd say something like, 'Now you listen to me!'" Wolcott took some pictures of Betty's children, but Betty noticed that she wasn't at all enthusiastic about photography at the time. "It seems such a shame, this business about Marion and the stopping. Why didn't she go on? … I don't think she truly wanted it after she had kids. On the other hand, I guess I've always secretly wondered if there wasn't a little part of him that wanted to put her down. Maybe he didn't want her to come up to him."
In 1953, Lee was involved in an accident with a gasoline-powered brush burner that badly burned his legs and ended his farming career. He was in the hospital for five months, during which time Wolcott contacted Stryker, telling him she wanted to work again, not for the money, but for something to do. Stryker was evasive, spending much of their luncheon meeting telling her that her place, especially now, was beside her husband. "A good man needs a good woman when he's recovering, Marion," he said. Wolcott came away filled with doubt about her talent.
After recuperating, Lee became a professor of government at the University of New Mexico, then took a position with the State Department. For the next 30 years, Wolcott accompanied her husband to various foreign posts in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan, and India. She photographed children and captured some of her travels on film, but none of her images ever reached the public. After returning to the United States in 1968, the couple moved again several times before finally settling in Santa Barbara, California.
Wolcott's work came to the attention of the art world in 1976, through an influential FSA group exhibition at New York's Witkin Gallery. At that time, she briefly entered the public arena, granting some interviews and accepting speaking engagements. (Her daughter said she agonized over her speeches, spending weeks researching, note-taking, and doggedly rewriting.) In 1978, the first solo exhibition of her work occurred in California, and in 1983, the first monograph of her photographs was published, a project headed up by Sally Stein , a teacher, historian and feminist. There were subsequent retrospectives of her work at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the International Center of Photography in New York City.
Wolcott died on November 24, 1999, after a long battle with lung cancer. A few years before her death, she was the keynote speaker at a Women in Photography Conference at Syracuse University. "Women are tough, supportive, sensitive, intelligent, and creative," she told her audience. "They're survivors. Women have come a long way, but not far enough. Ahead still are formidable hurdles. Speak with your images from your heart and soul. Give of yourself. Trust your gut reactions. Suck out the juices—the essence of your life experiences. Get on with it; it may not be too late." Perhaps Wolcott was attempting to gear up a new generation of women to persevere in the battle that she had given up on years before.
Hendrickson, Paul. Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Owen, Deborah L. American National Biography. Vol. 23. Ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville, 1994.
McEuen, Melissa A. Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars. KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts