Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Photographer Marjory Collins: Rebel Looking for a Cause

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, photographers hired by the U.S. government roamed the country, recording on film the realities of rural and urban America. Some of these photographers worked for the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), documenting the drought, poverty, and despair of the Great Depression.

As the economy improved with the onset of World War II, the FSA became less important while the need for collecting and disseminating information about the war became evident. The Office of War Information (OWI) was created, incorporating the FSA Information Division and various other offices, with the goal of informing the public about the war efforts and portraying the United States in a positive manner both domestically and overseas.

Roy Stryker, head of the Historical Section of FSA Information Division, was tapped to lead the OWI Photography Division. During the course of his federal career, he hired a number of outstanding photographers, including at least four women: Dorothea Lange, Marjory Collins, Marion Post Wolcott, and Esther Bubley.

Marjory Collins
Photo Library of Congress
While Lange’s work is well-known, the other women have been less heralded. I’d like to introduce you to Marjory Collins, who called herself “a rebel looking for a cause.”

When she began her career in the 1930s, women magazine photographers were rare. Collins worked for such magazines as PM and US Camera, and her photos was represented by major agencies, including Associated Press and Time, Inc.

Shortly after the OWI was created in 1941, Collins joined the team of photographers hired to document home front activities of the war. According to the Library of Congress, Collins “created remarkable visual stories of small town life, ethnic communities, and women war workers.”

From January 1942 to June 1943, she took more than 3,000 photographs while on about 50 different assignments. Most of these are preserved in the FSA/OWI Collection in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Waiting for trains at Pennsylvania Station, New York City
--Marjory Collins Photo

Library of Congress FSA/OWI Collection
Stryker wanted the OWI photographs to show “visual stories about the ideal American way of life and stories that showed the commitment of ordinary citizens in supporting the war effort.”

For one assignment on women in industry, Collins was told to capture “representative types actually at work rather than posed 'cuties,'" and to show "the very important contribution made towards final victory and how they have adapted themselves to wartime conditions."

This was in contrast to another OWI objective of making wartime jobs seem glamorous to encourage more women to join the workforce. As a result, Collins received criticism from some of her fellow photographers, who wanted the OWI photographs to show only the positive aspects of American life.

One of Collins’ stories showed a young widow, whom Collins called “Mrs. Grimm,” and her six children under the age of twelve. Collins considered these images among her best work, as they portrayed “life as it really is.”

Patsy Grimm, age 6, dusting and Mary Grimm, 8, sweeping
in the front room. 
Their mother, a 26-year-old widow, was
 a crane 
operator during WWII. Buffalo, NY
--Marjory Collins Photo

Library of Congress FSA.OWI Collection
Mrs. Grimm worked as a crane operator, and the photographic story showed the family’s struggle to stay together and properly care for the younger children.

Collins left OWI in 1943 and went on to work as a freelance photographer in Alaska, Egypt, Ireland, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Italy for U.S. government agencies and the commercial press.

Sadly, she also married and divorced three times. In the third divorce, sometime between 1948 and 1950, her husband destroyed many of the prints and negatives from those years abroad.

Her OWI assignments had raised her social awareness. To support various causes, she became a writer and editor, as well as photojournalist. Throughout her life, she participated in such social and political causes as civil rights, Vietnam War protests, and women's movements.

Around 1970, she experienced ageism and sexism when she found herself out of a job and in need of an operation. To address the needs of mature women like herself, she founded Prime Time, the first magazine for older women. It continued until 1976 and reached a circulation of 3,000.

Collins continued to study women’s history and the role of older women in society until 1985, when she died of cancer at the age of seventy-three.

Historians consider the FSA/OWI collection one of the largest photographic projects ever. One researcher, referring specifically to the women, stated, “it can be argued that these socially conscious photographers used the camera lens and the darkroom to create images that reflected their opposition to racial, economic and gender discrimination, shaping their audience's perception as well as our historical view of injustice in American society.”*


Marjory_Collins - Wikipedia

Multi-award-winning author Marie Wells Coutu finds beauty in surprising places, like undiscovered treasures, old houses, and gnarly trees. All three books in her Mended Vessels series, contemporary stories based on the lives of biblical women, have won awards in multiple contests.

She is currently working on historical romances set in her native western Kentucky in the 1930s and 1940s. Her historical short story, “All That Glitters,” won honorable mention in the 2023 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. In her newsletter, she shares about her writing, historical tidbits, recommended books, and sometimes recipes.

Another historical short story tells of a cafe waitress who waits for the love of her life to come back to her after the war. “A Song for Annie,” is available free when you sign up for Marie's newsletter here.


  1. I love this post. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing with us. Merry Christmas!

  2. Thank you for posting this very interesting topic. I'm constantly amazed at the things I don't know. I so appreciate this blog for providing so much historical information!!! Merry Christmas to you and yours.