Cover Image


John Vachon’s America

Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II

John Vachon (Author), Miles Orvell (Editor)


From 1936 to 1943, John Vachon traveled across America as part of the Farm Security Administration photography project, documenting the desperate world of the Great Depression and also the efforts at resistance—from strikes to stoic determination. This collection, the first to feature Vachon's work, offers a stirring and elegant record of this extraordinary photographer's vision and of America's land and people as the country moved from the depths of the Depression to the dramatic mobilization for World War II. Vachon's portraits of white and black Americans are among the most affecting that FSA photographers produced; and his portrayals of the American landscape, from rural scenes to small towns and urban centers, present a remarkable visual account of these pivotal years, in a style that is transitional from Walker Evans to Robert Frank.

Vachon nurtured a lifelong ambition to be a writer, and the intimate and revealing letters he wrote from the field to his wife back home reflect vividly on American conditions, on movies and jazz, on landscape, and on his job fulfilling the directives from Washington to capture the heart of America. Together, these letters and photographs, along with journal entries and other writings by Vachon, constitute a multifaceted biography of this remarkable photographer and a unique look at the years he captured in such unforgettable images.

Photographic Plates
Letters to Penny
Additional Writings
From the Journals
"Standards of the Documentary File"
Shooting Scripts
Correspondence with Roy Stryker
"First Day Out"
"Not a Care in the World"
"Tribute to a Man, an Era, an Art"

List of Illustrations
Works Cited
John Vachon (1914-75) began his long career in photography as a member of the famous Farm Security Administration group that included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn. The least-known member of the group, he worked for the FSA longer than any of the others, recording in his distinctive style the rural farms, the small towns, and the cities of America, as the country moved from the Depression to World War II. After the war he worked as a photographer for the United Nations and for LOOK magazine. Miles Orvell is Professor of English and American Studies and Director of American Studies at Temple University. He is the author of several books including The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (1989), American Photography (2003) and After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries (1995); he is also Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of American Studies (2001).
“Beautifully structured with a very convincing introductory essay by Orvell...This majestic archive, only a small fraction of which is on show here, brings the themes of social injustice, industrial strength and individual stoicism to the surface in formal and elegiac way.”—Gareth Harris Art Newspaper
‘A lasting tribute to the quiet man in America’s greatest group documentary effort... Vachon’s work appears worthy of the company he kept.”—Dick Holland Austin Chronicle
“Although he never realized his youthful dreams to be a professional writer, his words and pictures . . . are eloquent documents of our past.”—Rk Dickson Bloomsbury Review
“as much to read as to look at, and the combination is happy, for the photographer always wanted to be a writer. In both modes of expression, he is plain-spoken but eloquent without affectation, making the chronicle doubly welcome.”—Chicago Tribune Book Review
“haunting, endearing pictures...[a] beautiful volume.”—Tom Nolan January Magazine
“Stunning photographs...Vachon’s letters are as compelling as his photos.”—Bart Ripp Tacoma News Tribune
“Handsome, fascinating book . . . the images are sharp, clear, splendidly reproduced on heavy paper: the book itself . . . is a pleasure to hold. The photos . . . are all good, and some of them wonderful.”—Peter Walpole Virginia Qtly Review
"This fascinating book arrives at just the right moment, making a fresh contribution to renewed public and scholarly interest in the New Deal's FSA photography project and its part in the genesis of modern visual culture. Miles Orvell's skillful assemblage of image and word succeeds brilliantly in evoking John Vachon as both gifted photographer and complex man amidst his turbulent times. Vachon's pictures are at once subtle and truthful, and the texts Orvell has written and collected here illuminate the interplay of individual talent, institutional mandate, and popular ideology that powered the FSA's picture making process."—Maren Stange, author of Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-1943

"Miles Orvell has created an intriguing picture of a talented, introspective man as he goes about his work as an FSA photographer during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The various parts of the book come together to give us a non-fiction view of the USA and provide insight into documentary photography and the whole FSA project."—Townsend Ludington, author of John Dos Passos: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey and Marsden Hartley: The Biography of an American Artist

"In this exciting and provocative book, Miles Orvell addresses an extremely important topic in the history of documentary photography. John Vachon's images and correspondence provide a fascinating counter-narrative to the end of American isolation and the coming of World War II. His writings are a trove of information, written with disarming candor and spiced with lively comments not only on his subjects but on a broad range of cultural issues. Orvell's introductory texts are equally compelling."—James C. Curtis, author of Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered

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