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:
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. 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.
Here are two more examples of Delano using open doors to frame married couples in their homes, offering insight into how they live:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This carpenter’s home is almost entirely visible through the large open door of his converted truck.
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.
- Revisit previous entries in the Picture This blog series, Profiling Portraits.
- Explore all of Jack Delano’s photos in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection.
- Learn more about the photographer through the Jack Delano Papers, 1927-1995 in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.