Double Take: FSA Photographer at Work, Cameras in Hand

The following is a guest post by Jan Grenci, Reference Specialist for Posters, Prints and Photographs Division. This post is the latest entry in the occasional Double Take series, where we take a closer look at images.

As a reference specialist, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy doing research. What may surprise you is how a little good old-fashioned research can increase your knowledge and understanding of a particular subject, in this case the working methods of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Marion Post Wolcott.

A little background: I often explore in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) using the “browse neighboring items by call number” feature in order to see the photos filed before and after the one in question. I also open the high resolution digital files of photographs to better study the details.

Recently, I was preparing for a tour on the subject of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection. I try to always show portraits of some of the FSA photographers and I usually show this image of Marion Post Wolcott:

Marion Post Wolcott with Ikoflex III and Speed Graphic in hand in Montgomery County, Maryland. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1940 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b19325

Marion Post Wolcott with Ikoflex III and Speed Graphic in hand in Montgomery County, Maryland. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1940 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b19325

When I was looking at the online record for this image, I decided to “browse neighboring items by call number, as highlighted below.” When I did that I found two images of Ms. Post Wolcott that I had never seen before! These photos were previously untitled so they wouldn’t be retrieved in any online searches for Marion Post Wolcott. Untitled photos are those that were not captioned or printed for use by the FSA, often because they were duplicative of other photos.

Screenshot from Prints and Photographs Online Catalog with “Browse neighboring items by call number” link.

Screenshot of results of “Browse neighboring items by call number” feature in Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Arrow points from initial photo to related photo of Post Wolcott.

[Untitled negative showing Marion Post Wolcott standing in snow with cameras] Photo by Arthur, Rothstein, 1940 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b19319

[Untitled negative showing Marion Post Wolcott standing in snow with cameras] Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1940 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b19319

[Untitled negative showing Marion Post Wolcott standing in snow with cameras] Photo by Arthur, Rothstein, 1940 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b19315

[Untitled negative showing Marion Post Wolcott standing in snow with cameras] Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1940 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b19315

Now that I found Post Wolcott, I wanted to see what other details I could add to the caption information for the photos. She has two cameras with her, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy until I learned more about them. Because of the size and the quality of the high resolution scans and the sharpness of the original negatives from which the scans were made, it was easy to see which two cameras Post Wolcott was using on that cold January day in 1940.

One of the cameras is a twin lens reflex Ikoflex. I consulted an Ikoflex Guide published in 1957 from the Library’s general collections to more specifically identify the camera as an Ikoflex III. The III, which was only produced between 1939 and 1940, was distinguished from earlier models by the clear Albada viewfinder.

Pre-War Ikoflex Models from Emanuel, Walter Daniel. Ikoflex Guide: How to Make Full Use of your Ikoflex (New York: Focal Press, 1957). Catalog record: //lccn.loc.gov/58014643

“Pre-War Ikoflex Models” from Emanuel, Walter Daniel, Ikoflex Guide: How to Make Full Use of your Ikoflex (New York: Focal Press, 1957). Catalog record: //lccn.loc.gov/58014643

I recognized the camera Post Wolcott is holding to her eye as a Speed Graphic, a camera commonly used by professionals at that time. As many of Post Wolcott’s negatives from 1940 are sized 3 ¼” x 4 ¼”, I would say that she is likely using a 3 ¼” x 4 ¼” pre-anniversary model Speed Graphic. The U.S. Camera Publishing Corporation published the U.S. Camera Annual; one of the features of the Annual was the best photos of the year as chosen by Edward Steichen. Technical information such as the camera and film type used as well as camera settings were included with some of the selected photos. A photo by Post Wolcott that appears in the 1943 U.S. Camera Annual is noted as being taken with such a camera.

Detail from U.S. Camera Annua 1943, edited by T.J. Maloney (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943), p. 163.

Detail from U.S. Camera Annual 1943, edited by T.J. Maloney (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943), p. 163.

A different U.S. Camera Annual helped me with one more detail in the photo. I could see that in addition to the two cameras, Post Wolcott also had a light meter around her neck, an important tool for determining exposure. But only the back of the light meter was showing, making it a little trickier to identify.

I decided to look at the advertisements in the back of the 1939 U.S. Camera Annual, the one published close to the time of the photo, to see if I could find a light meter shaped like the one around Post Wolcott’s neck. Well, the research gods must have been smiling down on me because I found the ad featured below!

Eureka! The Weston 650 looked to be a match. And through the miracle of the internet, I found some Weston 650’s for sale. A few of the online advertisements for the meters included photos of the back of the meter, so I could be sure it was the same as Post Wolcott’s.

I had a match! And now I have my own meter – and a piece of photography’s technological past!

Detail from <em>U.S. Camera Annual 1939</em>, edited by T.J. Maloney (New York: William Morrow & Company), p. 212.

Detail from U.S. Camera Annual 1939, edited by T.J. Maloney (New York: William Morrow & Company), p. 212.

[Untitled] Photo, between 1935 and 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c30938

[Untitled] Photo, between 1935 and 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c30938

Late-breaking research bulletin! Further exploration using the “browse neighboring items” tool found yet more previously untitled photo portraits of Marion Post Wolcott at work, including the one featured lower right. View untitled photo #1, photo #2 and photo #3.  We will now update the title information on these records as well!

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5 Comments

  1. Larry Cole
    July 5, 2018 at 11:10 am

    I really enjoy articles like this. I collect cameras and like reading things about them. Do you know where I can get a recent catalog of cameras for collectors?

  2. Mary Panzer
    July 5, 2018 at 3:33 pm

    Thanks for sharing this research story. Here’s an obvious follow-up question: who took Marion’s portraits?

  3. Mark Sampson
    July 10, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    Mary, the text indicates that Miss Wolcott’s portraits were made by fellow FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein.
    Larry, There’s a recent book by Todd Gustavsson of the George Eastman Museum- I believe it’s called “400 Cameras”.

  4. Dana Gee
    July 11, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    Loved this post. Great research work, and you are a terrific detective.

  5. Barbara Felicetti
    July 11, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    A delicious research piece. Thank you

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