Riverfront Museum photo exhibit shows 1940s unity and diversity

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Frank Williams, an auto repairer from Illinois Central in Markham, Ill. (PHOTO BY JACK DELANO)

When “Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography” opens at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on October 9, it will be somewhat of a throwback for Delano, who visited Bradley University in 1988 as the first guest of BU’s Bunn Lectureship in photography.

Howard Goldbaum

Howard Goldbaum

Delano was “a humanitarian with a deep social conscience,” said Howard Goldbaum, a former Bradley University photography professor who befriended and worked with Delano and his wife Irene when they all lived in Puerto Rico. “His appreciation for the worth of all people is evident in his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and in his subsequent images of Puerto Rico. “

Organized by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art in partnership with the Chicago History Museum, and sponsored by Holly and Bon French, the Visionary Society and the Illinois Arts Council, the exhibition runs through January 2 and features dozens of photos from a collection of some 2,500 in the Library of Congress.

William London

William London, a rotunda worker for the Chicago & Northern Western Railway in Chicago. (PHOTO BY JACK DELANO)

Created from November to April in 1942 and 1943 for the federal FSA, Delano’s portraits of the railways’ vital contributions to the home front during World War II focused on people rather than places, processes, or equipment – all to help rally public support for the “total-war” approach to conflict.

The ambitious and enduring exhibit demonstrates that the railway industry of the 1940s nurtured its own subculture that transcended individual backgrounds. Through images of men and women of railway workers, the exhibition shows how members of an industrial community can represent the diversity and unity of American society.

Delano had a knack for recording subjects that reflected the country and at that time, reflecting the racial and class diversity of the country, families and various neighborhoods united in a common cause.

“I’ve always been more interested in people than things,” he told me in an interview decades ago. “What attracts me are people and their environment.

A journey through time and space; the images show the challenges and the life of this industry, vital to the fight against global authoritarianism, partly history and partly propaganda.

“In a way, every journalist, every artist is a lawyer,” Delano told me, adding that the mission and the program were meaningful to him and to the nation.

“I truly believed in the Farm Security Administration program. It was important for the country, ”added Delano, who died in 1997.

Delano’s snapshot of America’s rail industry, workers, and culture shows some of the abilities of FSA photographers, talents such as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and others Ray Stryker hired to record the country during the Great Depression and World War II.

“In just a few short months, Delano has created perhaps the best comprehensive portrait of the railroad, its people and its culture of any photographer in the United States,” said John Gruber, Founder of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.

The industry was a representative sample of ordinary Americans.

“The rail industry has fostered its own communities and networks that transcend ethnic and religious boundaries,” said Gruber. “The dignity of everyday work and the stories of individual railway workers and their descendants are explored. “

Delano’s singular achievement was just one aspect of an extraordinary and gifted artist.

Jack and Irene Delano

Jack and Irene Delano on assignment for the FSA. (PHOTO PROVIDED)

Born in 1914, Delano was 9 when his family moved to the United States, where as a young man he studied photography, illustration and music at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. until 1932. Soon after, the FSA hired him for $ 2,300 / year.

He visited Puerto Rico in 1941 and settled there after his military service from 1943 to 1946. In this American territory, Delano also helped establish his first educational television channel, produced documentary and educational films and composed music scores. musical, as well as ballets, chamber music and orchestral works, and has collaborated with Irene on children’s books.

“He was a creative mathematician,” said Goldbaum, who taught Bradley from 1977 to 2002, after which he taught at the University of Nevada-Reno until his retirement last year. “I had known about his work at the FSA since my graduate studies. “

Goldbaum, who after editing a trade magazine moved to Puerto Rico in 1974 as chief newspaper photographer, said Delano had made an impact on generations of photojournalists.

“I have been very influenced in my approach to photojournalism and documentary photography by all of the FSA photographers, as well as the work ethic and social concerns of Roy Stryker,” said Goldbaum. “He was an inspiration to me at the start of my career [and] is still.”

As visitors to the Riverfront Museum can find, Delano continues to inspire.


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