John Vachon traveled the world as a professional photographer, but the St. Paul native’s work was always shaped by his Midwestern upbringing. He is most remembered for his photographs for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Look magazine. His photos juxtaposed the rich and the poor, society’s promise and its compromises.
Vachon was born to a middle-class Irish Catholic family in 1914. His father was a traveling salesman, and Vachon was raised on a modest block not too far from the wealthier neighborhoods around Summit Avenue. He had a Catholic education, attending Cretin High School and then St. Thomas College.
Vachon moved to Washington, D.C., at age twenty-one, after receiving a fellowship to attend Catholic University of America for graduate school. He began studying English literature, but he was forced to leave school because of his drinking.Rather than moving back to St. Paul and telling his parents what had happened, Vachon looked for work in Washington. He found a job working as an assistant messenger for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA was a New Deal agricultural program that provided relief and rehabilitation funds to needy farmers. The FSA’s Historical Section, headed by Roy Stryker, hired dozens of photographers and took over one hundred thousand photographs between 1935 and 1942. Most of these photographs documented difficult living conditions in rural regions of the United States.Vachon was soon promoted to file clerk, but Stryker had bigger hopes for him. He lent Vachon a camera and encouraged him to take photos around Washington. Walker Evans, Vachon’s main photographic influence, even taught him how to use a large-format camera. Vachon soon graduated to a 35mm Leica and began taking short photographic trips to the Midwest.
In 1938, Stryker sent Vachon on his first long trip. Vachon recalled this experience in Omaha as being the moment he became a true photographer. Stryker continued sending Vachon on longer photo trips, although he did not acquire the title of junior photographer until 1940. As an FSA photographer, Vachon was drawn to scenes that agency photographers typically avoided, like strikes and saloons.
Vachon continued working for the FSA after it became the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942. When Stryker resigned from the OWI in 1943 and began working on a documentary public relations project for Standard Oil, Vachon went with him. At the OWI and at Standard Oil, Vachon worked alongside Gordon Parks, another Minnesotan. Both Vachon and Parks experimented with color photography during this time.
Shortly after Vachon joined Standard Oil, he was drafted into the military. Vachon was discharged before ever having to go to war, but he chose to visit Europe anyway. In 1946, he took a job working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. As he photographed postwar conditions in Poland, Vachon was shaken by the violence he witnessed. He did not want to return to public relations work for Standard Oil, which had pre-war ties to Nazi Germany.
In 1947, Vachon was offered a job as a staff photographer for Look magazine. Look was a popular weekly photo magazine that started in 1937. It competed with magazines like Life and The Saturday Evening Post, although it lacked the professional style of those publications. Vachon worked for Look until 1971. During that time, Vachon also dreamed of becoming a writer, although he published very little.
Vachon, who was shy, had a troubled personal life. His friends and family worried about his alcoholism and risk-taking behavior. His first wife, Millicent (Penny) Leeper, also struggled with emotional issues. He married her in 1937. They had three children, Ann, Brian, and Gail, whom Penny had to care for while John was traveling. Penny committed suicide in 1959, and Vachon remarried in 1961. With his second wife, Marie Francoise Fourestier, he had two more children, Christine and Michael.
During the last years of his life, Vachon worked on photo stories for the magazine Vermont Life, which was edited by his son Brian. His daughter Christine became a noted independent filmmaker, producing films such as Boys Don’t Cry and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In 1975, at the age of sixty, Vachon died from cancer.
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