Saturday, January 13, 2024

Women Photographers of the FSA: Images from the Heart and Soul

    Last month, I talked about the women photographers who documented life in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration. Marjory Collins called herself a “rebel looking for a cause,” and you can read more about her here.
    This month, I’d like to introduce another, Marion Post Wolcott. She produced more than 9,000 photographs for the FSA, in addition to those she took as a freelance and newspaper photographer.
Marion Post Wolcott
According to researchers at the Library of Congress, Marion traveled thousands of miles to “document and publicize the need for federal assistance to those hardest hit by the Great Depression and agricultural blight.” She drew on her “social concerns and her artistic vision to illustrate issues that needed redress.”
    Born Marion Post, she challenged the accepted social propriety of young women traveling on their own and living away from home. As a young woman, Marion moved to Massachusetts to teach nursery school in a small mill town. Class differences between the children of the mill owners and the families of struggling mill workers outraged her.
    She went on to study dance and child psychology in Europe, where she discovered she had a “good eye” for photography. When the Nazi threat forced the University of Vienna to close in 1934, Marion returned to America.
    She taught at a progressive school in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where she also took portraits of the students. To pursue her interest in photography, she commuted to New York City on weekends to attend lectures at the Photo League. She moved to the city in 1936, becoming a struggling freelance photographer for various magazines. The next year, she joined friends in Tennessee as the still photographer for a pro-labor documentary film. While there, she photographed the living conditions of people in the area. In 1938, the New York Times Magazine chose one of those photos for its cover to illustrate an article on “People of the Tennessee Valley.”
    But freelance work did not pay the bills, and a friend helped Marion get a full-time job with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Other staff members disliked the idea of a woman photographer and treated her unkindly. After a few days, she confronted them, and then the men helped her complete her assignments and improve her skill at developing negatives.
    Covering fashion news and social events for the women’s pages soon became boring for her, however. Colleagues recommended her work to Roy Stryker, head of the FSA photography division, who hired her on the spot. She became the first full-time woman photographer for the FSA. (Dorothea Lange had been working part-time for the agency.)
Hazards of travel by car, Jackson, Ky, ca. 1940.
Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, from the
collection of the Smithsonian Museum

Despite the social stigma of a woman traveling alone, Stryker gave her many assignments that often forced her to drive alone at night to complete her tasks on schedule. “She had to navigate poorly marked roads, search for safe places to eat and sleep, draft captions, wash and mend her clothes, keep mileage and per diem figures, get her camera and car repaired, and write chatty letters that kept her feeling connected to the Washington, D.C., office and Washington alert to the photographs she was making and her experiences away from the office,” according to the Library of Congress.
Farmers sitting in front of a store. Photo by Marion Post
Wolcott, Library of Congress/Farm Security
Administration/Office of War Information
Black-and-White Negatives

   Her daughter, Linda Wolcott Moore, later said Marion achieved the striking images she produced by first getting to know her subjects. “They liked her; they knew she cared; they thought that maybe she would, could, help. That the images would get back to others who would, and could, help. She gave them hope; and, she did what she had to do, with a passion and commitment that kept her on the backroad alone for up to a month at a time."
    In 1941 Marion met, fell in love with, and soon married Lee Wolcott, assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture. (Remember that the FSA was an agency of the Department of Agriculture.) She attempted to continue her career but found it difficult. Once, Stryker sent her a detailed list of assignments that would require extended travel, and she complained about the workload and the insignificance of the subjects. Her husband not only argued that she was overworked, but he also ordered Stryker to have his staff change the credit on every FSA photograph she had taken from “Marion Post” to “Marion Post Wolcott.” In those days before computers, this required extensive effort and time that took away from other projects.
    The resulting ill-will, coupled with her feeling unappreciated as a photographer, led to Marion resigning from the FSA and focusing on raising her family. She gave away portraits of her neighbors and images from rural Virginia, Colorado, and Mexico, where she and Lee lived for several years. He went to work with the State Department, taking the family to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Egypt. The Seven Days War in 1967 forced their evacuation from Egypt, and Marion destroyed nearly all of her personal archive to prevent it from being captured.
    Although Marion never worked as a professional photographer after leaving the FSA, exhibits of her work cemented her reputation in both journalistic and artistic photography, and she received many awards. Her commitment to producing quality in the midst of difficult circumstances became perhaps her greatest contribution. Speaking to aspiring women photographers in 1986, she advised them to “Speak with your images from your heart and your soul.”
    Marion Post Wolcott's images from the Depression era in America speak, even today, from her heart and her soul.


Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

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. 
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 hereIn her newsletter, she shares about her writing, historical tidbits, recommended books, and sometimes recipes.


  1. Thank you for posting and Happy New Year to you and your family. I love these stories about talented, vivacious, determined women!

  2. Thanks for this post. Marion was an interesting person!