I was doing some research into how to read and understand photographs and I came across an interesting article on the Library of Congress’s website, namely Visual Literacy Exercise, compiled by Helena Zinkham, June 2004. The exercise was a three step process to help improve one’s observational skills. I thought this would be a great tool to help kick start my visual critique, so I decided to try it out.
A sample photograph was provided for the exercise. This is Jack Delano’s Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C. &. N.W. R.R., Clinton, Iowa. This was taken back in April 1943 for the United States Office of War Information. (LC P&P number LC-USW36-644).
The exercise briefly states to:
- Look at a photograph for two minutes without reading the caption. Write a few words about your first impressions. List everything you see. Look at the photograph again.
- Write a narrative caption for the photograph. Read any exiting information that accompanies the photo. Write a short paragraph covering the who, why, when, where and how questions about the photo. Describe what is shown in the photo and mark any assumptions with question marks.
- Verify the original and any additional caption information in reference sources. Show the photo to colleagues and get their opinion to see if you have missed anything.
So I took a look at the sample photo that was provided.
My first impression was that this was a photograph made of a group of women, judging from their dress – factory workers, possibly during World War II, who were on their lunch break, sitting at a cafeteria style table eating, drinking and chatting.
The next step was to name everything I saw in the image: calendar, wall clock, blue cap, red headscarf, tea mug, blue headscarf of a hidden women with her hand visible holding a mug, an orange, wax paper wrappers, brown bags, sandwich, a jar, a Marie biscuit, tea flasks, women wearing overalls, goggles, apple, white headscarf, a window that looks as if it is blacked out or painted over, sticks in the corner of the room and a bottle opener on the table.
I looked at the image again and noticed that I missed the lunch boxes (four of them seem to be similar), the blue painted wooden wall and the dingy brown painted over brick wall. A few of the women have extremely dirty hands.
I was then asked to write a narrative caption about what the picture means. The best I could come up with was “Factory women on a lunch break”. Now I needed to read any existing information that came with the photo. In this case the only extra information I got with the photo was the following: “The caption for the sample photography on the next page is: Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C. & N.W. R.R., Clinton, Iowa. Color transparency taken by Jack Delano, April 1943 for the United States Office of War Information (LC P&P number LC-USW36-644)”, Zinkham, Helena (June 2004). Visual Literacy Exercise. [online]. Library of Congress. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/tp/VisualLiteracyExercise.pdf [Accessed 15 March 2014]. It was mentioned that the photo was from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division and there was a URL pointing me to the actual image.
While I was looking at the image, I became rather intrigued with my “lunch ladies” as I have started to call them. They seem to be from all age groups. But what were the ‘roundhouse’ and the C & N.W. R.R.? So I did a bit of searching on the Library of Congress’s website and collected a little more information about the photo (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001032/PP/). The photo is a colour transparency and the summary stated that two of the ladies were Marcella Hart (on the left) and Mrs. Elibia Siematter on the right. Two of my ladies now had names! I also noticed that C & N.W. R.R. was an abbreviation for the Chicago and North Western Rail Road. My lunch ladies worked at the rail road as wipers, they were not factory workers.
Jack Delano, the photographer, was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the USA with his family in 1923. After high school he studied for an Arts degree and won a scholarship to travel to Europe. While he was in Europe studying art, he bought his first camera. He worked at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the USA during the New Deal Period (a period instigated by President Franklin Roosevelt to restore the economy and create jobs for Americans after the great stock market crash in 1929 by means of various experimental programs and projects) to document social conditions across the United States particularly during the Depression. The photo was made in April 1943, during World War II. America would have entered the war by this time and that would explain why there were women working on the railroad as most of the men had been called up to go and fight. The C & N.W. R.R. was a huge sprawling rail network servicing commuters, mines and coal fields. Prior to working for the FSA, Delano had begun working on a bootleg coal mining project and he sent one of the books that he had produced to Roy Stryker of the FSA, who subsequently offered him a job. One of his assignments at the FSA was to document the importance of the railroad industry during the war years and the contributions made by the workers and their families. This photo would have been in that collection.
But my curiosity about my lunch ladies is not yet satisfied. Delano’s point of view in this photograph can very well have been that of the proverbial fly on the wall. The ladies seem totally oblivious of him, engrossed in their stories and swigging down mugs of tea for those coal dusted throats. One can assume that they are not talking about their jobs, but chatting about home, neighbours and family. For some or other reason, Mrs Elibia Siematter, the lady on the right chatting with someone off frame, seems to me to be the leader of the group. She appears to dominate the photo, possibly because hers is the only face turned towards the camera and thus revealing herself to us. The other ladies are all looking down, at each other or their faces are obscured. Next to Marcella Hart (the lady with the red headscarf) is a woman who is totally obscured. We only see a part of her headscarf and her hand. I do have to wonder at the obvious lack of facilities available to the women workers who are forced to eat with coal dust on their hands.
I performed a search in the Library of Congress’s website again, searching for “Jack Delano” and found a few more photos of the lunch ladies, which I would like to share. Please come and meet the ladies. As works of the U.S. federal government, all the images in this review are in the public domain.
Here Delano clearly used flash (as can be seen from the shadow behind the subject) and Mrs Siematter (Figure 2) is starkly exposed against the drab background of the rest room. The fact that this is the only individual photo of one of the ladies at the table also backs my theory that Mrs Siematter was the leader of the group – a matriarchal figure.
Delano then proceeded to take a series of photos of the women at their work stations.
In Figure 3 we see Mrs Siematter performing her duties as a sweeper. Again Delano used flash as she stands separated from the grimy background. I am of the opinion that this is a posed photograph as there is no implication of movement and I’m certain Mrs Siematter would have put her goggles on had she, in actual fact, been sweeping to prevent the coal dust from getting into her eyes.
In this photography of Marcella Hart (Figure 4), Delano juxtaposes a motherly figure, against the wheel of a huge locomotive engine bringing the viewer’s attention to the sacrifices this woman is making while her husband is probably serving in the armed forces. Her headscarf is a symbol of domesticity of that era, but she is armed with a huge oil can and rag (another contrast): she is not performing her normal housewifely duties, where one would expect the housewife to be armed with a dusting rag or feather duster cleaning furniture. She is tense as can be seen from the way the fingers of her left hand are clenched and she has a worried frown on her forehead.
Irene Bracker seems to be the lady who is sitting off camera in the lunch hour photo (as can be seen by the colour of the headscarf). Even though the sky is quite bright in this image (Figure 5), I personally find this image to be quite sombre. The locomotive, the car in the background, the embankment and Mrs Bracker’s clothes are all black with soot. For this reason I am immediately drawn to her face which is capped by the bright yellow headscarf. It is the focal point in the image. She stands stalwartly holding a broom, not making eye contact, with a determined expression on her face as if to say that she is here doing this job because she has no other choice and she will soldier on bravely.
Mrs Lucke, I believe, through process of elimination of comparing clothing and headscarves, is the mystery lady seated next to Marcella Hart (with the red headscarf). She is also posed next to the wheel of the locomotive as Marcella Hart was, but she has more a relaxed air about her. She might be one of the women who actually enjoyed working during the war years, experiencing a sense of freedom from domesticity.
Maybe Marcella Hart had good reason to be anxious. The designation of ‘wiper’ might seem pretty mundane, but I think the work could well be quite dangerous. Imagine taking a tumble off those pipes the ladies are standing on, as can be seen in both Figure 7 above and Figure 8 belowl.
Mrs Sievers is the lunch lady seated on camera left of Mrs Siematter and as the caption in Figure 9 states she is the sole supporter in her family. This is emphasized by the fact that she is the solitary figure in this photograph, and this is further accentuated by her small frame juxtaposed in front of the huge locomotive.
This photograph in Figure 10 has very dramatic lighting – very Rembrandt like. The light falls on the subject’s face, skimming her arm and spade and falling onto the sand she is shoveling drawing attention to her job function.
So the introductions to six of the nine lunch ladies draws to an end. One is left wondering about the remaining three ladies. Why were there no individual photographs taken of them? I haven’t been able to find any among this collection. Possibly they were damaged during developing. Who knows? This visual exercise has shown me how much can be gleaned from a photograph if one takes the time and trouble to really look deeply at it. I will be practising this whenever I look at photographs in the future. This exercise has also led me to develop the utmost respect for the women who went out to work in place of the men in factories, railroads and other institutions. It could not have been easy for any of them.
Chicago & North Western – A Capsule History [online]. Chicago & North Western Historical Society. Available from: http://www.cnwhs.org/ch_cnw.htm [Accessed March 19, 2014]
Chicago and Northwestern Sandhouse at Clinton, IA (2012) [online] Railway Preservation News. Available from: http://www.rypn.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=33797&p=181996 [Accessed 21 March, 20140]
Doud, Richard K. (12 June 1965). Oral history interview with Jack and Irene Delano, 1965 June 12. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [online]. Available from: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-jack-and-irene-delano-13026 [Accessed 19 March, 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943) Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C. & N.W. R.R., Clinton, Iowa. [transparency: colour]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW36-644]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001032/PP/ [Accessed 19 March, 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943) C & NW RR, Mrs Elibia Siematter, employed as a sweeper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa. [transparency: colour] [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW36-637]. Available from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001026/PP/ [Accessed 19 March, 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). [transparency: colour]. C. & N.W. R.R., Mrs. Elibia Siematter, working as a sweeper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW36-638]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001027/PP/ [Access 19 March, 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). C. & N.W. R.R., Mrs. Marcella Hart, mother of three children, employed as a wiper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa [transparency: colour]. [online image] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW36-636]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001025/PP/ [Accessed 19 March, 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). C. & N.W. R.R., Mrs. Irene Bracker, mother of two children, employed at the roundhouse as a wiper, Clinton, Iowa. [transparency: colour]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW361-635]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001024/PP/ [Accessed 19 March 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). C. & N.W. R.R., Mrs. Dorothy Lucke, employed as a wiper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa. [transparency: colour]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW36-633]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001022/PP/ [Accessed 19 March 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). Clinton, Iowa. Women wipers of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad going out to work on an engine at the roundhouse. [negative: nitrate; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller]. [online image] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 [LC-USW3- 026610-E]. Available from:
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001027233/PP/ [Accessed 19 March 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). Clinton, Iowa. Women wipers of the Chicago and Northwestern railroad cleaning one of the giant locomotives. [negative: safety; 3 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches or smaller]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 [LC-USW33- 029958-D]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001046046/PP/ [Accessed 19 March 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). Mrs. Viola Sievers, one of the wipers at the roundhouse giving a giant “H” class locomotive a bath of live steam, Clinton, Iowa. Mrs. Sievers is the sole support of her mother and has a son-in-law in the Army. [transparency: colour]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW36-643]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001031/PP/ [Accessed 19 March 2014]
Delano, Jack (April 1943). Chicago and North Western R.R., Mrs. Thelma Cuvage, working in the sand house at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa. Her job is to see that sand is sifted and cleaned for use in the locomotives. Mrs. Cuvage’s husband works as a guard at the Savannah (Ill.) Ordnance plant. [transparency: colour]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USW36-631]. Available from:
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992001020/PP/ [Accessed 19 March 2014]
History.com staff, 2009. New Deal [online]. History.com. A + E Networks. Available from: http://www.history.com/topics/new-deal [Accessed March 19, 2014]
Zinkham, Helena (June 2004). Visual Literacy Exercise. [online]. Library of Congress. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/tp/VisualLiteracyExercise.pdf [Accessed 15 March 2014]