November 26, 2010

Flagships of New York: Macy's on the Home Front, Photographs by Marjory Collins for the FSA/OWI

(updated) The week before Christmas in December of 1942, photographer Marjory Collins (1912-1985), working on assignment for Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration/ Office of War Information photographic division, took her camera to the R. H. Macy and Company department store on 34th Street in New York and shot several pictures of the busy holiday scene. It was also wartime, clearly telegraphed in some of the images. Her photographs served the mission of the government agency to show that domestic life continued as normal during the war, and they also relayed the importance of thrift and morale-boosting on the homefront.

Portrait of Marjory Collins, photographer
for the Farm Security Administration (FSA)
and the United States Office of War Information (OWI)

Though Collins is not as well known as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and other FSA/OWI photographers, her story should interest New Yorkers.

According to the biographical essay from the Library of Congress, she was a native New Yorker, born into a prominent family. As a young woman, she made her social debut, followed by a proper marriage to a Yale graduate of her own class. But they divorced after two years. She made a turn toward rebellion, not unlike many of her peers in the 1930s. And where would a rebellious young woman in 1935 live in order to establish a new identity?

The answer is not surprising. "Determined to reject her patrician roots," the Library of Congress notes, "Collins moved to Greenwich Village and a Bohemian life style." (Biographical portraits of Greenwich Village life always go there.) Selling her wedding silver to buy a camera, she began studying photography with an avant-garde photographer. Soon she would be accepting many assignments for magazines. In 1941 she landed a job in the New York office of the Foreign Service's Office of War Information. In January 1942 she moved to Washington, DC to join Stryker's photo team.

Throughout the war, Collins pursued many assignments that involved ethnic and racial diversity, photographing upbeat portraits of Americans from all backgrounds. Working as an editor and professional photographer, she continued to pursue her interests in social activism and racial justice all her life.

Her professional work would take her to many new places. According to the Library of Congress, "From her home in Vermont, she participated in social and political causes including the civil rights, Vietnam War protest, and women's movements. She founded and edited the vanguard publication Peace Concerns (began 1962) and was associated with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions." In her later years, after not finding work on account of her sex and age, she rallied support for the plight of older women. While in her late sixties, she went back to school to study the subject of older women in American society and earned an M.A. in American Studies. She died in 1985.

Collins took these holiday images of Macy's five years before the release of the popular postwar classic, MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1947), the movie that centrally featured the department store. Where the latter movie spins a fictional story, Collins's pictures document everyday life in the famous department store during wartime. A sample is included here. Look for more in the American Memory project at the Library of Congress.

The captions are the original ones included with the Library of Congress files. Reproduction numbers are added for those inclined to research more. Source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Read the full biography of Marjory Collins here at the LOC site.

New York, New York. R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas.
LC-USW3-013146-E DLC (b&w film nitrate neg.)

New York, New York. Book department at R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas.
LC-USW3-013138-E DLC (b&w film nitrate neg.)

New York, New York. Corset display at R. H. Macy and department store during the week before Christmas.
LC-USW3-013131-E DLC (b&w film nitrate neg.)


New York, New York. R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas.
LC-USW3-013120-D DLC (b&w film neg.)

New York, New York. Book department at R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas.
LC-USW3-013154-E DLC (b&w film nitrate neg.)

New York, New York. R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas. Children line up to talk with Santa Claus. They are two Santas, concealed from one another by a labyrinth to prevent disillusionment of the children. Each child is presented with candy and tells Santa his or her desires.
LC-USW3-013145-E DLC (b&w film nitrate neg.)
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Read all the posts in this series, Flagships of New York:







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