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 John F. Vachon  (1915 - 1975)

About: John F. Vachon
 

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia/New Jersey/Minnesota      Known for: commercial and social-realist photography

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BIOGRAPHY for John Vachon
Facts/Data
Birth
1915 (Saint Paul, Minnesota)
 
Death
1975 (New York City)

Lived/Active
District Of Columbia/New Jersey/Minnesota

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commercial and social-realist photography

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
John F. Vachon (May 19, 1914 – April 20, 1975) was an American photographer. He worked as a filing clerk for the Farm Security Administration and carried the title "assistant messenger." He was twenty-one, and had come to Washington from his native Minnesota to attend Catholic University of America. Vachon had no intention of becoming a photographer when he took the position in 1936, but as his responsibilities increased for maintaining the FSA photographic file, his interest in photography grew. A memoir by his son quotes Stryker as telling the file clerk, "When you do the filing, why don't you look at the pictures."

By 1937 Vachon had looked enough to want to make photographs himself, and with advice from Ben Shahn he tried out a Leica in and around Washington. His weekend photographs of "everything in the Potomac River valley" were clearly the work of a beginner, but Stryker lent him equipment and encouraged him to keep at it. Vachon received help as well from Walker Evans, who insisted that he master the view camera, and Arthur Rothstein, who took him along on a photographic assignment to the mountains of Virginia. In October and November 1938, Vachon traveled to Nebraska on his first extensive solo trip. He photographed agricultural programs on behalf of the FSA's regional office and pursued an extra assignment from Stryker: the city of Omaha.

Stryker's instructions about what to photograph seem not to have been very detailed. Years later Vachon recalled that "my only clue was an article in a recent Harper's by George Leighton," a reference to a politically charged item in the magazine by the periodical's associate editor.  The 1938 article traced the development of the Union Pacific and other railroads--for which Omaha was an important center--and the political machinations that made their builders millionaires. It also described Omaha's stockyards, owned by Chicagoans Swift, Cudahy, and Armour; the failed attempts of regional reformist and populist movements; a riot and the lynching of a black man; the nefarious influence of the absentee-owned Nebraska Power Company; and two infamous streetcar employees' strikes that had been put down by thugs from Benjamin Danbaum's detective service. Although Leighton ended his story with Depression hard times and the collapse of the city's businesses, his conclusion was optimistic: the New Deal's farm, soil, water, and power projects would bring hope to the parched plains.

Leighton planned to publish a book containing this article and similar social histories of four other American cities, and Stryker wanted the book to be illustrated with Farm Security Administration photographs. As Vachon was leaving Lincoln for to Omaha, he wrote Stryker, "Are you going to send me a list of definite things Leighton would like from Omaha?" In a 1973 interview, Vachon recalled the Omaha assignment as a moment of artistic maturation:

I spent a cold November week in Omaha and walked a hundred miles. Was it Kearney Street where unemployed men sat all day on the steps of cheap hotels? A tattoo parlor, and the city mission with its soup kitchen. Men hanging around the stockyards. One morning I photographed a grain elevator: pure sun-brushed silo columns of cement rising from behind CB&Q freight car. The genius of Walker Evans and Charles Sheeler welded into one supreme photographic statement, I told myself. Then it occurred to me that it was I who was looking at the grain elevator. For the past year I had been sedulously aping the masters. And in Omaha I realized that I had developed my own style with the camera. I knew that I would photograph only what pleased me or astonished my eye, and only in the way I saw it.

Thus began the hallmark of what became Vachon's style of photography--- the portrayal of people and places encountered on the street, un-embellished by the beautifying contrivances used by calendar and public relations photographers. One influence on both Vachon and Frank was Walker Evans. Critic Jonathan Green's description of Evans's and Frank's choice of subject matter as what was "considered beneath notice" applies to Vachon as well: "images of the roadside, automobiles, gasoline stations, American flags in out-of-the-way places, barbershops, bums, billboards, luncheonettes, political posters, public monuments, and cemeteries."

Roy Stryker then recruited Vachon to join a small group of photographers, including Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, who were employed to publicize the conditions of the rural poor in America.

Vachon was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He graduated from Cretin High School (now Cretin-Derham Hall High School). He received a bachelors degree in 1934 from the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, then named St. Thomas College. In about 1938 he married Millicent Leeper who was known as Penny. She died in 1960. Vachon married Françoise Fourestier in 1961. Vachon served in the United States Army in 1945.

John Vachon's first job at the Farm Security Administration carried the title "assistant messenger." He was twenty-one, and had come to Washington from his native Minnesota to attend The Catholic University of America. Vachon had no intention of becoming a photographer when he took the position in 1936, but as his responsibilities increased for maintaining the FSA photographic file, his interest in photography grew.

By 1937 Vachon had looked enough to want to make photographs himself, and with advice from Ben Shahn he tried out a Leica in and around Washington. His weekend photographs of "everything in the Potomac River valley" were clearly the work of a beginner, but Stryker lent him equipment and encouraged him to keep at it. Vachon received help as well from Walker Evans, who insisted that he master the view camera, and Arthur Rothstein, who took him along on a photographic assignment to the mountains of Virginia.

In October and November 1938, Vachon traveled to Nebraska on his first extensive solo trip, described above, which became the experience that defined the future of his life as a photographer---the portrayal of people and places encountered on the street, unembellished by the beautifying contrivances used by calendar and public relations photographers.

He was a photographer for the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C. from 1942 to 1943, and then staff photographer for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey between 1943 and 1944. After serving in the army in 1944–45, in 1947 Vachon joined the Photo League, where he wrote book reviews for Photo Notes and participated in many exhibition.

Between 1945 and 1947 he photographed New Jersey and Venezuela for Standard, and Poland for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Vachon became a staff photographer for Life magazine, where he worked between 1947 and 1949, and for over twenty five years beginning in 1947 at Look magazine.

In 1953 Vachon took the first pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio when Monroe cured a sprained ankle near Banff, Canada. When Look closed in 1971 he became a freelance photographer. In 1973, he won a Guggenheim fellowship.  In 1975 he was a visiting professor at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

He died in 1975 in New York at age 60.

Sources:

Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Vachon

Photographs from the Farm Security Administration
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap02.html


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