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written by Immortal Marilyn | views: 1966
John Vachon: A ‘Lost Look’ at Marilyn
Dover Publications is a US company, founded in 1941, that reissues classic literary works in value-priced, paperback editions. In 2010, Dover broadened their remit by publishing ‘Marilyn, August 1953: The Lost Look Photos’, a hardback, coffee-table book featuring John Vachon’s photographs of Marilyn Monroe in Canada, while filming ‘River of No Return’, most of which had never been seen before. It was released under their Calla Editions imprint, using paper from sustainable forests, and presented in landscape format. On the grey front cover, under the dust-jacket, is a silhouette of Monroe.
John Vachon was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1914. His surname is French-Canadian, but his father was Irish. The Vachons were not well-off, but John’s mother encouraged him to pursue his education. He graduated from his hometown’s University of St Thomas in 1934. His plans to write or teach were dashed, though, when his graduate scholarship was withdrawn after a drinking binge.
He was married to Millicent Leeper, known as ‘Penny’, four years later. In 1935, Vachon had moved to Washington where he found work as a filing clerk at the Farm Security Administration, established at the height of the Great Depression by President Roosevelt, as part of the historic ‘New Deal’. One of the FSA’s lasting legacies was cultural: the photography program of 1935-44 revealed startling images of poverty-stricken, rural America to the world.
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Vachon became passionately interested in photography. “Vachon’s job as a file clerk since 1937 had allowed him access to the thousands of photographs they had produced, and he prided himself on the highly organised archival system he established to file and retrieve these images,” writes Brian Wallace, in his introduction to ‘The Lost Look’. “Vachon, who had been raised in rural Minnesota, was especially drawn to the version of small-town America depicted in Walker Evans’ photographs.”
In fact, Vachon’s early work was strongly influenced by Evans. But Vachon belonged to the ‘second generation’ of FSA photographers, whose emphasis was by then less focussed on rural deprivation than on urban conditions and the gradual encroachment of World War II on the American people. Now that the Depression was receding, photographers like Vachon were allowed the freedom to pursue more personal projects.
A few of Vachon’s FSA pictures are included in ‘The Lost Look’, most notably ‘Farm Girl, Seward County, Nebraska’ (1938.) As Brian Wallis notes, this photo “encapsulates like a novel all the wanderlust and dreams and damaged innocence of an isolated rural schoolgirl.”
On the road, Vachon liked to read James Joyce, kept a daily journal and wrote long, pithy letters home to his wife. Always an introvert, Vachon was nonetheless a risk-taker and drank heavily throughout his life. Above all, Vachon insisted that his work should have “feeling,” which he defined as “the humourlessness, the pity, the beauty of the situation.”
But in the post-war era, the bulk of employment for photographers like Vachon was with glossy, large-format magazines, such as ‘Life’ and ‘Look’. Managed by the famous husband and wife team, Gardner and Fleur Cowles, ‘Look’ had a slightly smaller circulation than ‘Life’, but it boasted a wider scope of features and respected writers. In 1947, Vachon was hired as a staff photographer.
“At ‘Look’ you work with a writer and it really is a team sort of thing,” Vachon explained. “We talk a lot about the story before we go on it, and while we’ re there, we know what we want to say, and we’re doing a story.” This approach was very different to the realist style of the FSA. “I’m known at ‘Look’ as the photographer who can’t do so well in a purely set up and directed story,” Vachon admitted, “and I’m usually sent on things which require my seeing what’s there rather than arranging what’s there, so I’d say that’s perhaps the influence that stayed with me.”
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