A Powerful Pair From Marion Post Wolcott
by John Edwin Mason
It’s truly an honor to have our guest contributor, John Edwin Mason, introduce this important and, yes, iconic pair of Marion Post Wolcott images today. The presentation of this pairing is the direct result of an exchange JEM and I had on Twitter as the horror of the Emanuel AME Church shooting unfolded in real time on that sad, terrifying June evening. Back then, John answered my “What can I do?” frustration with a most welcome and logical suggestion to “find and show us art that challenges, reconciles, moves us forward.”
As evidenced by that shooting and myriad other events that have made headlines recently, our ugly history with regard to race matters is still very much with us today. It is my hope that looking back might help us move forward, and I’m grateful to JEM for the thoughtfulness and time he’s devoted to selecting this pair of striking images that are both moving and meaningful.
— Jen Bekman, 20x200 CEO.
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.
Wolcott was in Mississippi on an assignment from the photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration [FSA]. When she joined the unit in 1938, she was an experienced photographer, despite being 28 years old. In her early twenties, she had studied photography in Vienna, and, after returning to the United States, at New York’s Photo League. She later freelanced in New York City, before becoming a staff photographer at Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
Life at the Bulletin was far from satisfying, however. Wolcott held strong political beliefs and a deep sympathy for workers, the poor and the oppressed. Confined to the newspaper’s “society” pages, she longed to make photographs that addressed the pressing issues of the day. By the late 1930s, the FSA’s documentary images — made by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Russell Lee — were renowned for the intensity with which they depicted the suffering of the American people during the Great Depression. When the chance to join the photographic unit presented itself, Wolcott was ready. Between 1938 and 1942, when she left the FSA, she criss-crossed the country in her Plymouth convertible, producing over 9,000 images.
In Mississippi, Wolcott’s instructions were to produce photos that documented the workings of the cotton industry and labor conditions on cotton plantations. But her boss, the indomitable Roy Stryker, understood that he couldn’t stop his photographers from going off on what Wolcott called “tangents.” In fact, he didn’t try. From the beginning of his unit’s existence, he had hoped that his photographers would do much more than produce public relations images. He dreamed of creating a photographic archive that would embrace the entire American experience. If it took tangents to produce a dramatic picture of a movie theater’s colored entrance and a portrait of enraptured dancers, it was a price he was happy to pay.
Wolcott seems to have spent most of a sunny October or November afternoon in Belzoni looking for good pictures and not finding them. She made a dozen or so photos of an itinerant salesman who was standing on the back of a truck, hawking cloth by-the-yard to mostly black customers. She spent time photographing a small crowd on street corner, apparently hoping that a guitar player would conjure up some excitement. (It didn’t happen.) She wandered over to the black part of town, where she captured the dust kicked up on the unpaved streets.
A Negro going in the Entrance for Negroes at a movie theater, Belzoni, Mississippi stands out because its companions are so mediocre and because it was the only image Wolcott made of the scene. She didn’t move around, searching for different angles. She didn’t try alternative camera settings. It stands alone, and it’s damn near perfect.
The photo’s crisp geometry is its most obvious strength. There are two planes. A lighter one is broken up by the black diagonal line that defines the staircase, a pair of doorways, a ladder and its shadow, and the silhouette of a man, climbing the stairs. The flamboyant graphics of a Dr. Pepper ad dominate the darker plane. Signage abounds, and the most significant is by no means the most prominent. Off center to the left, lettering reads “Colored Adm. 10¢.” Below it, “White Men Only” is stenciled on a doorway. The man on the staircase, then, is an African American, moving toward the “colored” entrance and away from the whites-only toilet.
Wolcott’s image is about many things at once — the interplay of light and shadow, the petty humiliations that black Southerners endured, the hierarchy of race that ensured that some people would pick the cotton and that others would reap the profits.
According to her biographer, Paul Hendrickson, she once called Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi her favorite: “I think it says the most about me, about what I was trying to do and trying to say.” We’re so used to thinking of Mississippi juke joints as tourist attractions, that it’s hard now to imagine how unlikely it was for a young white woman to simply enter one in 1939, let alone make a photo like Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. It was more than unlikely; it was dangerous.
Wolcott had nothing to fear — nobody was going to bother her. It was black people who were in peril. At a time in American history when lynchings — for trying to vote, for looking at a white woman the wrong way — were still too common, Wolcott’s mere presence in a juke joint could have put everyone at risk. Stryker understood the danger. “I… have grave doubts,” he told her in a letter, “of the advisability of sending you… into certain sections of the South. It would not involve you personally in the least, but, for example, negro [sic] people are put in a very difficult spot when white women attempt to interview or photograph them.”
Wolcott remembered that she solved the problem by convincing the son of a plantation owner to accompany her. That may be true, but a uniformed white policeman was also on hand. Wolcott made at least nine photos in the juke joint that day. In one of them, the cop, with the hint of a smile on his face, looks directly into her lens.
However Wolcott made Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, we can only be glad that she did. It’s an extraordinary, forever frozen moment of youth, grace, and joy. The moment is all. Nothing else about the photo is the least bit memorable. But that moment is more than enough. The moment is universal and at the same time specific to the time and place. It’s a reminder that, even in the heart of the Delta and even at a time when civil rights for black Mississippians were but a dream, people were never defined solely by their oppression.
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.
John Edwin Mason
John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia.
He has published extensively on South African social history and the history of photography in Africa.
His most recent book, One Love, Ghoema Beat, combined archival research and his own photography to explore the past and present of the New Year’s carnival in Cape Town, South Africa.
Mason is currently writing a book about the American photographer, Gordon Parks.