Jack Delano, 1914-1997, is one of my favourite photographers; and fortunately, a great deal of his work is available at the US Library of Congress, because of the work he did for the US Government. This is typical of his portraiture: his son described it as ‘one human baring its soul to another.’
Everything in it is of its time: the clothes, the welding gear, the wood-sided wagon with its faded Chicago and North Western Line logo. It is also timeless, though, because it shows all that it needs to show, and no more. Each of the three principal components is cropped by the edge of the frame, with even Mr Evans cropped off at the knees. The last is a real no-no in the eyes of an old-fashioned camera club judge, who might also take exception to the absolute centrality of the figure in the frame. Where are the thirds, the leading lines, the dynamic diagonals? Well, some of them are there if you want to look for them and impose your preconceptions, but they are not needed. Everything flows out from the central figure: he is the reason for the picture.
Better to look at the details. Begin with his direct stare, even if he looks a bit puzzled: why me? Then reflect that Delano chose a low viewpoint, literally looking up to his subject. He is not taking a picture; he is humbly accepting it. Look at the proprietorial arm resting on the trolley for the gas cylinders, and at the welding torch itself draped over his shoulder. Would you normally carry a welding torch like that? I don’t know. But it looks natural and unaffected, and in propaganda photography above all, this is what matters. The reinforcing bars on the wagon radiate from his strong right hand and the steps to its roof climb up from his shoulder. The work-polished steel of the wheel of the gas trolley and the lightly rusted cylinder speak of unpretentious and somehow curiously real work.
Learning by looking
Did Delano, only 28 years old at the time, think about all this consciously when he took the picture? Almost certainly not. Like most of us, he probably thought, ‘Well, I don’t want this in the way, and I don’t want too much of that, and if I’m not careful...’
On the other hand, his artistic studies went far beyond photography. His education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts included a four-month European tour on a Cresson Traveling Scholarship where he became increasingly fascinated by depictions of hard-working labourers throughout history. He learned his craft by looking, and later by doing; and if you want to be a photographer, there aren’t really many alternatives.
‘He chose a low viewpoint, literally looking up to his subject. He is not taking a picture; he is accepting it’