In 1992, while browsing a bookstore in Washington, D.C., I picked up Looking for the Light. On the back cover was a black-and-white photograph, taken in 1933, of a beautiful 23-year-old woman with mesmerizing eyes and a tomboy style of dress. I developed an immediate crush on her, a photographer named Marion Post Wolcott and the subject of the book.
Wolcott was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s, one of several photographers employed by the New Deal agency to document the impact of the Great Depression on the lives of Americans. Wolcott, along with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and others, created some of our nation’s most iconic images. But Wolcott never became as famous as some of her contemporaries. That’s because, after taking several hundred thousand photographs over three years, she met a man, put her camera down to start a family, and did not pick that camera up again for almost 50 years.
Paul Hendrickson, the author of Looking for the Light, summarizes Wolcott’s life as “a story about an artist who stopped, who let go of that gifted magical thing inside her until it was too late and the gift was lost. And yet in spite of this fact she was able to make her survival a grace, not just a dour necessity.”
My work, as the founder of Share Our Strength, has focused on hunger and poverty, which is why I’ve always been interested in the era of documentary photography that did so much to bring those issues to public attention. The human drama that Hendrickson conveys about the choices and trade-offs that Wolcott made has universal relevance and was riveting, but what I really took away from the book was a new way to see.
See my review of the book in Stanford Social Innovation Review @http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/bearing_witness/