When Jen Bekman asks you to write an essay about one of your favorite photographers, the only correct answer is "Yes." Jen is the CEO of 20x200, an online gallery that she created with a mission to make great art affordable for almost everyone. It's a terrific project.
Last summer, when the nation was caught up in the horror of the Emanuel AME Church shootings in Charleston, Jen and I exchanged tweets, asking each other what we could do to make our world a little bit better. It occurred to us that art -- and photography in particular -- had a lot to say to Americans about about our history and our prospects. We figured that her strength was to bring significant images to the public. My job as a writer is to contextualize them.
It's a happy marriage. We selected two images by Marion Post Wolcott, one of my favorite photographers, for 20x200 to offer. They speak powerfully, yet in very different registers, about our past and, I think, about our present.
Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration: Negro going in colored entrance of movie house on Saturday afternoon, Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi, 1939.
Here's how I begin the essay that I wrote for Jen:
Eighty-two miles of dirt roads and no more than a month's time separated two of Marion Post Wolcott's most iconic photographs. She made them in Mississippi in the fall of 1939, during one of her long solo swings through the deep South. In the first -- A Negro going in the Entrance for Negroes at a movie theater, Belzoni, Mississippi -- she transformed a mundane scene into a complex composition with deeply layered meanings. The second -- Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi -- captured a moment of sheer exuberant delight. It's a much simpler image than the first, but just as powerful.
Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration: Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1939.
And here's how I end it:
The word "iconic" is overused, but these photos are unquestionably American icons. Their beauty and visual sophistication are givens. What makes them iconic is their ability to show us deep and complementary truths about the experience of race in America. In them we can see reflections of our troubled past and present. Through them we can imagine a more democratic future.
In between I write that Wolcott understood -- and captured with her camera -- an essential truth: As much as racial oppression limited life's possibilities for African Americans, we have never allowed ourselves be defined by that oppression.
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Wolcott's own story is as interesting as her photos. She was young (not yet 30), white, pretty, and traveling alone on an assignment with the federal government's Farm Security Administration [FSA] when she made these Mississippi images. Given those facts, you might think that the cop who can be seen below in another photo from the juke joint was on hand to protect her. You'd be wrong. He was there to protect the African American patrons. (Despite the slightly different captions, it's almost certain that the photos were made in the same establishment.)
Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration: Negroes jitterbugging in a juke joint on Saturday afternoon. Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta
Roy Stryker, Wolcott's boss at the FSA, understood the dynamic. The intensity of Southern racism and the violence that the white community regularly unleashed on blacks whenever it seemed that a white woman was getting too friendly made her presence a potential danger. As Stryker put it in a letter to Wolcott, "...negro [sic] people are put in a very difficult spot when white women attempt to interview or photograph them." Her uniformed escort was on hand to make sure that local whites didn't get the wrong idea.