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Mr. and Mrs. Lemuel Smith, FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower, in their home in Carroll County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, Apr. 1941.

Profiling Portraits: Through the Doors of Jack Delano

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In this entry in the occasional Profiling Portraits series, where I take a closer look at types, styles and formats of portraits, I bring you a post many years in the making. Quite a few years ago, I came across this photograph by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Jack Delano:

Mr. and Mrs. August Udal, Finnish [Estonian] FSA (Farm Security Administration) clients. They have a poultry farm in Canterbury, Connecticut. Photo by Jack Delano, Nov. 1940.
I loved the unusual composition of having the Udals pose on different levels and within doorframes. Since they ran a poultry farm, it also tells a bit about them. The size of their operation is suggested by the size of this building, and of course, some of their chickens join in and have their portraits made at the same time. Prints & Photographs Division staff members have been systematically re-scanning the 175,000 negatives of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information in recent years, and when I saw this photo and others had been newly scanned in high resolution, I knew it was time to share them here.

This is not the only time, by far, that Jack Delano used a door opening to frame his subjects. The next two examples paint a stark difference between the socioeconomic statuses of each couple featured. By framing the couples at a distance, Delano can include more context, such as the furniture and finishes of their homes. Your eye travels over those details on its way to the couples themselves, and their clothes and appearance offer further insight into their wealth or lack thereof.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Carroll County, Georgia, stand in a distant doorway of their simple but tidy and orderly home. Other photos Delano took of the Smith family show the couple and their children living and working on their farm–plowing fields, feeding livestock and gathering wood. The Smiths were FSA borrowers, meaning they had been loaned money by the FSA to improve their farm, so these photos also served to show how the program was assisting farmers and their families.

Mr. and Mrs. Lemuel Smith, FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower, in their home in Carroll County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, Apr. 1941.

Mr. and Mrs. Lamb, owners of the Union Point hosiery mill in Greene County, Georgia, are equally far from the camera, allowing the viewer’s eye to travel over their fine furniture, art and pristine home to where the couple and their small dog sit, framed by the window behind them as well as the open doorframe in front. Other photos Delano took at the same time show the workers and products in the mill the Lambs own.

Mr. and Mrs. Lamb, owner of the Union Point hosiery mill in their home in Union Point, Greene County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, Nov. 1941.

Here are two more examples of Delano using open doors to frame married couples in their homes, offering insight into how they live:

Mr. and Mrs. Melkon Loosigian, Armenians. Run a fourteen-acre vegetable farm. Son works in Arlington mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to help support family. West Andover, Massachusetts. Photo by Jack Delano, Jan. 1941.
Mr. and Mrs. L. H. Cook, tenant purchase FSA (Farm Security Administration) family. Woodville, Greene County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, June 1941.

In this photo, Delano frames the family in a doorway, but they stand outside the room because, sadly, the space they live in is unsafe.

Mr. and Mrs. D’Anunnzio and their little girl, showing the condition of the roof in their house in the submarginal area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York. Photo by Jack Delano, Sept. 1940.

Browsing through Delano’s photos turns up many variations on the idea, including this portrait of a farmer, Mrs. Morrison, in front of her closed door.

Mrs. Morrison farms in the submarginal area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York. Photo by Jack Delano, Sept. 1940.

And this photo of a couple framed by a dark doorway within their compact trailer, where they have chosen to live in case they need to travel to find work.

Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Bryant in their trailer about two miles out of Bath. Mr. Leslie Bryant works in the shipyard. They have been living in the trailer for two months. They could not rent in Bath and although a trailer cost them almost as much as a house, Mr. Bryant feels that it is a better investment because they do not know where they will go next in search of work when this “boom” is over. Bath, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, Dec. 1940.

Here a contemplative seated woman is framed in profile by her open door, as a portrait of perhaps her parents looks over her. The bed built by her woodworking husband is featured in the foreground.

Mrs. Evelyn Knowles, her husband, who teaches at the vocational school in Woodville, made the furniture for their room. Woodville, Greene County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, Nov. 1941.

This full doorway shows both the gathering of family to celebrate, per the caption, and also suggests crowded living conditions when people come to visit.

[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Guanica, Puerto Rico (vicinity) A Three Kings’ eve party at the home of a farm labor family]. Photo by Jack Delano, Jan. 1942.
This carpenter’s home is almost entirely visible through the large open door of his converted truck.

This man is a carpenter at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This converted truck is his home. The interior of his truck was more roomy than most of the cabins that had been built at the camp where he was staying. At a settlement near Silver Lake, North Carolina (about ten miles out of Fayetteville, N.C.). Photo by Jack Delano, March 1941.

Jack Delano took thousands of portraits as part of the over 18,000 photos he took for the Farm Security Administration. These are just a few of the ones I found where he uses doorways to capture both the person and the place in one shot and, in so doing, tells a bigger story through his lens.

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  1. Fascinating study, Kristi! Delano trained as a painter before he became a photographer. Well trained eye, his and yours.

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