The fact that Marion Post was a woman was novel for a professional photographer circa the 1930 — and trust it caused some consternation among some of her male colleagues, like the guys at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin who pissed in her developing chemicals. Even after bawling them out, thus earning their begrudging respect, Post was still regulated to the “women’s beat,” i.e. fashion shows and society events. The paper even ran a piece called “Strange Jobs for Women,” with photojournalist as the headliner; a portrait of Post ran alongside it. It was therefore a huge relief for her when Post was invited in 1938 to join the Farm Security Administration, the government agency tasked with documenting life in post-Depression America. Post was their first full-time female photographer. (Dorothea Lange, who joined in 1935, was only part-time; the women met exactly once.)
The FSA was a perfect spot for Post. She had planned on becoming a teacher — in fact was studying child psychology in Vienna when she first dabbled with photographer, documenting the rise of fascism circa 1932 — and had worked in a few classrooms prior to that Bulletin gig, freelancing only when she could find the time. But her early work was prescient of the direction her career would take: Post snapped shots of the poor kids who resided near her upstate home and, in 1937, did principal photographer for Elia Kazan’s pro-labor film The People of the Cumberlands. Her extracurricular images she took of the rural people, published in the New York Times Magazine, helped lead to the Tennessee Valley Authority. The FSA’s struggle-centric mission was very much in her wheelhouse.
As at the Bulletin, Post’s womanhood again came into play during her FSA tenure, but this time she used it to her advantage. Many of her subjects were hesitant to have a government photographer poking about their business, turning their lives into objective glimpses for federal agents and other outsiders. But Post found that some were disarmed by an attractive woman, granting her access to places men would never delve. Some, not all: during a 1965 interview she described Florida gamblers grabbing and destroying her negatives: “They were annoyed that I felt I could get away with it because I was a woman, which was exactly what I was trying to do.”
Like all FSA photographers, Post was tasked with capturing American life in the wake of the Great Depression, traveling around to far-flung rural locales to archive the daily struggles and humble triumphs unfolding across the nation. And she took some astonishing shots while doing so, capturing farmers, migrant workers, coal miners and their families persevering despite the odds. FSA boss Roy Stryker later recalled of Post’s work, “If you look through the file, you’ll find Marion has particularly a great sense of our land, of our terrain and a feeling of people on the land, probably more than some of the others. A great love of people, a great warmth and understanding of people.” And he too understood her gender and appearance came up from time to time. And so too did her ballsy wit. “Marion also suffered from being a very attractive girl, and I always wondered how she could possibly get along… I asked Marion one time, I said, ‘Marion, don’t you have some trouble around sometimes?’ She said, ‘Yes, very often a local police picks me up. We have a Coke, and he asks me something about his sex life, and I ask him something about his, and by this time I look at my watch and say, ‘If I don’t get back to work, I’m going to get fired.’”
Stryker’s only complaint about Post? Her initial insecurity led to an overabundance of work: “I remember having called her up one at a time and said I was sending her a motion picture camera so she could make more of the same thing. That was probably what she needed to startle her into being more thoughtful and not being quite so insecure, realizing she was better than she thought she was.”
Post’s government work could have been the start of a long and illustrious career, as it had been for Lange, Gordon Parks, John Vachon, Lee Russell, and Walker Evans, but, once again, Post’s gender complicated matters: this time after 1941, the year she met and married Lee Wolcott, a State Department official and widower with two small children. Balancing her career and family became too strenuous, especially after the newlyweds another baby: “[I] thought at the time that I would probably go back after I had our child, had Linda,” she said in that 1965 interview. “But, of course, the war came along… It didn’t work out, but I wish that I had been able to stay and go on into the sort of the next era.”
Post Wolcott subsequently raised her children on a farm in Virginia, out west in New Mexico and Colorado, and, after Lee was sent overseas, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iran, where she was forced back into being a teacher. “When I reached Tehran, there was considerable pressure put on me to teach in the American school because I had an education in teaching and I had taught in this country for a short while,” she said in a 1989 interview.
In 1967, they were relocated Egypt, which she soon had to evacuate at the start of the Seven Days War. “I had to go. I didn’t want to, but they insisted that the women go [before the men],” she said in 1989. “We were told that everything would probably be taken from us, that we could only take out some clothing and things like that. Probably our cameras and film and everything of that type would be taken.” Rather than let her negatives fall into the wrong hands, she destroyed them before fleeing to India and then Pakistan, where Post Wolcott lent a hand with local family planning events, documenting the people she met along the way. She and her husband were particularly tickled by the organization’s slogan: “One, Two Children, Stop.”
Speaking of stop — that was their final stop in their international adventure: the family moved back to the United States soon after; and, again, Post Wolcott obliterated her photographic evidence before departure, depriving future generations of her unique view. And though Post Wolcott continued her photography in her spare time, she never worked professionally again. It wasn’t until 1975 that her work was dusted off and given the recognition it deserved, thanks in large part to New York gallerist Lee Witkin. In 1980, she oversaw the reprinting of some of her greatest hits, and for the next decade enjoyed new found respect and well-deserved admiration. She died in 1990.
In celebration of Post Wolcott’s incredible career, here are a few other images from her FSA days, straight outta the L.O.C.