Text by Leah Haidar, Copyright 2021
A Miner’s Wife
I chose the photograph Unemployed Miner’s Wife With Tuberculosis on Porch of Company Owned Quarters, Marine, West Virginia (1938) by Marion Post Wolcott. I initially chose this photograph due to the facial expression of the woman portrayed. Her subtle smile and her eye contact that moves beyond the camera made me wonder what she might be looking at, especially given the title revealing her battle with Tuberculosis. It is a somewhat hopeful image, with such a somber title. Wolcott (1910-1990) was an American photographer who had specialized in documenting the Depression era, seeking to find the ordinary struggles within the lives lived during that time. I believe this photograph best provokes John Szarkowski’s characteristic of “The Thing Itself” because there was a reality behind this photograph that we will truly never know, yet by being photographed, it is documented forever. This photograph documented by Wolcott’s camera reveals a truth that the human eye cannot perceive.
Between 1938 and 1942, Wolcott had produced more than 9,000 photographs, including the one talked about in this paper, for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) (Brannan, 2012). The FSA was established in 1937 to share and document the rural poverty occurring during the Great Depression. Starting out her career in photography, she worked freelance. But when she landed a job with the FSA, her work transformed into activism. Her photographs that documented the struggles of the people during that time, especially women, worked as a way to expose the need for assistance.
Activism work was not new to Wolcott. Although her father was a conservative, her mother was an activist for progressive causes. Wolcott was also extremely educated and cultured (Brannan, 2012). She spent time in New York City and Europe, experiencing the arts such as dance and theatre. She studied an array of topics at New School for Social Research, New York University, and University of Vienna including child psychology, and childhood education. She also studied dance intensely throughout her life, allowing her artistic side to cultivate. Although she had grown up quite privileged, she had watched the struggles of others which touched her quite deeply. She worked as a childcare provider in a mill town in Massachusetts and saw the class divide amongst children, depending on the hierarchy of their parents. She lived in Vienna during the Nazi regime, she watched homes be destroyed and the homeless population rise. Her somewhat privileged upbringing gave her the opportunity to share others struggles, and depict them in a way to help bring awareness and aid.
The black and white photograph of Unemployed Miner’s Wife With Tuberculosis on Porch of Company Owned Quarters, Marine, West Virginia depicts a women in the middle of the frame, leaning against a porch in front of her. It is a portrait. This photograph was created through Selenium-toned silver print on paper. It was a decent sized photograph, the display that I saw measured 22cm by 18cm with a large overmatting white boarder. I was immediately drawn to this image because of the expression on the woman’s face.
I see “The Thing Itself” as the formal characteristic of this photograph. Szarkowski describes “The Thing Itself” as the subject and the image being separate from one another. The camera eye can capture a reality that the human eye will not be able to fully percieve or understand. The image portrays one sliver of a moment, that does not capture the full reality of that moment in time. In terms of the photograph in question, “The Thing Itself” is the woman.
Although we get a clue as to her situation through the title, we do not fully understand her. This image leaves a lot open for the viewer to interpret and think about. Her eyes are wide but tired looking. We can see her collar bones and veiny hands. We can suspect she is frail. But at the same time, she looks off into the distance with perhaps a slight smile to her face. She leans against the post in front of her comfortably. What is she looking at? Is she looking for something? What is going on around her? This photograph leaves the viewer wanting to know more about the subject and her life. It only captures a glimmer into the reality of this woman’s life.
Because Wolcott specialized in activism work, especially during the depression era, it made me wonder what about this photograph shares her vision. The photograph and the subject are two different things. Her mission working for the FSA was to share the story of those experiencing extreme poverty and distress during the Great Depression. She wanted to share the collective trauma of a generation (McEuen, 2000). This image shares the stark reality of a woman during this time, ill but perhaps hopeful? The narrative will always be under question, as the photographer has many possibilities to manipulate the construction of an image. But the simplicity of this photo evokes more of a stark reality than anything else. By this, I mean that this image does not thrive off of trauma porn. It is a simple, yet extremely intriguing, image depicting a woman with struggles of her own during the depression.
This photograph possesses many other characteristics I will now describe. “The Detail” of the image has a large amount of clarity. The women possesses sharp details, from the veins on her hands to the straggling hairs on her head. The background is also quite clear, but not as sharp as the woman herself. This brings me to “The Frame.” This characteristic gives a glimpse of the “Company Owned House” described in the title. We can see that it is a wooden structure, there
is a window behind her and perhaps a door next to her. But the rest of the structure is left to the imagination, we cannot understand how large or small the structure is given the information in this photograph. The way this image was framed shares the focus put onto the woman. She is placed dead center in the photograph. Her forehead and cheekbones are extremely highlighted, guiding the viewer to look at her face first. The way this image was framed also gives off a slight keystone affect. Although the photograph is taken from a lower side angle, the window appears larger on the bottom than it does on the top. The background frames her well, but she is still the center of attention.
Because the image is so still, the “Time” exposed must have been quite fast. One clue that I can analyze is her hair blowing in the wind. Although it is blowing, it is still incredibly detailed, her hair is not blurry at all. Another clue I might be able to analyze is her dress, it is wrinkled, but detailed. This hints that the exposure time was quite short if it was able to capture such detail, or maybe she did stand still for a long time. The last characteristic of this image that I will analyze is “Vantage Point.” Because she stands against a porch, she looks as if she towers her surroundings. The photograph was taken from a lower angle, leaving the subject to be elevated. Szarkowski describes a process in creating the vantage point as “If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera” (Szarkowski, 1966). Because of the subject’s comfortable pose, Wolcott must have wanted to capture the scene in its entirety by shooting from below.
This photograph feels quite candid. The subject looks away from the camera, as if she is unaware she is being captured. She is elevated, yet grounded. What I mean is this photograph does not feel curated, it feels authentic. It captures a singular moment in time. Although the subject and the photograph are two separate things, I feel as though Wolcott did a good job
capturing the struggles within the ordinary. This image does not feel posed or composed. It captures a woman in a habitat of her own, or so we are meant to believe. She is the light and the subject of this image. I was immediately drawn to the expression on her face, and the highlights that draw us to her. The captured details of her body leave the viewer wanting to know more about her situation, and about her battle with Tuberculosis. It also makes the viewer think more about the realities of the Great Depression. This photograph depicts only one reality, and Wolcott’s collection of 9,000 other images would show other realities. Wolcott’s mission was to share the collective trauma, and strength, of a generation, and this image is only one example.
Brannan, Beverly W. “Marion Post Wolcott: A Biographical Essay.” The Library of Congress. Prints & Photographs Division, 2012.
McEuen, Melissa A. “A Radical Vision on Film: Marion Post’s Portrayal of Collective Strength.” Essay. In Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars, 125–96. University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Szarkowski, John. Photographer’s Eye. New York City, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1966.
About The Author: Leah Haidar graduated Cum Laude from Bryn Mawr College BA in Sociology. Class of 2021. To access additional articles by Leah Haidar, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/friendly-faces/