Perspectives on Puerto Rico: Intriguing Images of Island Life as Seen through the Lens of Farm Security Administration Photographers in the 1940s

By Taylor, David A. | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2010 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on Puerto Rico: Intriguing Images of Island Life as Seen through the Lens of Farm Security Administration Photographers in the 1940s


Taylor, David A., Americas (English Edition)


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In her apron, she is bent close to her large, healthy cabbage plants, the lush dark green leaves of her potato patch visible beyond. A passing cloud gives a moment of shade, relief from the full sun on the hillside. We seem to be with the woman in the photo as she tends her vegetable garden--that's the magic of the image--even though the "now" captured in Jack Delano's photograph is nearly 70 years in the past.

2010 marks the 75th anniversary of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a tiny agency created in the 1930s by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt with the job of making Americans care about that woman and that scene, in Puerto Rico and across the continent. Seen now, the photos of Delano and Edwin Rosskam in Puerto Rico, along with others taken by FSA photographers across North America, reveal connections across borders and communities rarely seen. These photographs offer a fresh window on Puerto Rico of that time.

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Delano and his wife Irene came on assignment for the FSA, fell in love with the island, and chose to spend the rest of their lives there. Delano developed this eye for the essential everyday experiences of a place and its people while working in the FSA, led by Roy Stryker. Stryker urged his FSA photographers--who included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and Gordon Parks--to capture "not the America of the unique, odd, or unusual happening, but the America of how to mine a piece of coal, grow a wheat field, or make an apple pie." His aim was documentary photography that showed a place but also made the observer feel its reality. "The lens of the camera is, in effect, the eye of the person looking at the print," explained Rothstein, and in that sense it takes the viewer directly into the scene.

Edwin Rosskam was one of Stryker's early hires for the FSA. Born in Munich, Rosskam had emigrated to the United States. He studied painting at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts (where he met Delano). Soon after joining the FSA, Rosskam spent months in Puerto Rico in late 1937. His most famous work would be his collaboration with Richard Wright, the author of blockbuster novel Native Son. Their 1941 book, 12 Million Black Voices, published a year after Native Son, was a photo essay that captured a fresh awareness of African-American life before the civil rights era.

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Delano would follow Rosskam's path to the island in late 1941. He fell in love with the place and its people, and 40 years later, he shot another series of photographs showing Puerto Ricans and their lives. These appeared in his 1982 book Puerto Rico Mio, which traced the changes in lives of people he met over the course of four decades. "Delano saw," wrote Alan Fern, "the thread of continuity that linked one moment of Puerto Rico's history to another."

Born Jack Ovcharov in Ukraine in 1914 and raised in Philadelphia, Delano was an art student in his early twenties when he saw images by the FSA photographers in magazines and exhibits. He was "overwhelmed by their power and eloquence," he said later. "They became my heroes," he said of the photographers. He finished school only to enter a terrible job market and took an emergency relief position with the Federal Art Project at a monthly wage of $90. To promote his photography, he set up an exhibit of coal miner portraits in a gallery in the Philadelphia train station. This got him attention from the press and front leading photographer Paul Strand. With that encouragement, he rented an apartment on West 18th Street in lower Manhattan.

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Delano sent his coal-miner photographs to Stryker and applied for a job among his heroes. Stryker replied, "Sorry, no openings available. Do not give up hope. Perhaps in the future."

The following spring Delano received a telegram from Stryker: "Position available. …

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