Jack Delano’s Puerto Rico: A Masterwork Spanning 40 Years and One Island

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I just came across this article on Jack Delano. It is from 2011 and was written by David González. Lovely gallery of photos. This is the second of two pieces on the work of Jack Delano. Part One is here.

An offhand comment Roy Stryker made to Jack Delano changed his life. Mr. Stryker had called Mr. Delano in November 1941 to suggest that he go to the Virgin Islands to document a Farm Security Administration project.

“And while you’re there,” Mr. Stryker added, “you might want to stop by for a few days in Puerto Rico.”

He agreed, and cut short his current assignment in Georgia. Then he dashed off to find an atlas to figure out exactly where he was headed. A few days turned into more than three months – thanks to the United States’ declaring war after the Pearl Harbor bombing – as Mr. Delano, later joined by his wife, Irene, crisscrossed the island. They were so captivated that they managed to return in 1946 – on a Guggenheim fellowship that turned into a permanent move.

Today, Mr. Delano’s vast archive of Puerto Rican images – augmented by a series he did in the 1980s where he revisited some of the same villages, valleys and people he first encountered in the 1940s – is both his masterwork and valentine to his adopted island home. They depict poverty and progress, back-breaking labor and lush landscapes, urban sprawl and modern materialism.

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“I was fascinated and disturbed by so much of what I saw,” he wrote of his first trip to the island in his memoir, “Photographic Memories,” which the Smithsonian published shortly before his death in 1997. “I had seen plenty of poverty in my travels in the Deep South, but never anything like this.”

But true to his guiding principle — respect for the thing in front of the camera, as Paul Strand had declared — he saw deeper.

“Yet people everywhere were cordial, hospitable, generous, kind and full of dignity and a sparkling sense of humor,” he noted. “Wherever we went, no matter how dire the poverty, we were welcomed into people’s homes and offered coffee.”

Consider this: When a thunderstorm forced them to seek shelter one day, an impoverished woman welcomed Jack and Irene into her ramshackle home, where the rain fell through holes in the roof. As Irene handed out chocolates to the excited children, the woman explained how her husband had hurt his back and could no longer work the cane fields. She did laundry for her neighbors, and coaxed an egg from a hen when she could.

“Don’t worry, Señora,” he recounted in his book. “We take care of ourselves.”

When the storm let up, the Delanos, stunned by what they had seen, left. One of the children called out after them and put a brown paper bag in Irene’s lap.

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“What’s in it?” Jack asked after they had ridden in silence for a while. “She looked inside and said, ‘Two eggs.’ ”

Mr. Delano’s work is perhaps a lifetime’s repayment of that woman’s generosity. When he and his wife returned in 1946, he joined the island’s Department of Information, which had modeled itself after the Farm Security Administration. He traveled the island, photographing schools, religious festivals, fairs, hospitals and railroads.

The group included two of his friends from the administration, Edwin and Louise Rosskam, who joined him in a later venture when they were persuaded by the future governor, Luis Muñoz Marin, to establish an agency that would use film and graphics to improve education in rural areas.

That decision led to Mr. Delano’s gradual movement away from photography, as he went into making documentary films, then to work at a newly established educational television station. He would later go on to rediscover his first love, music, as a composer, too.

But in the late 1970s, as a new generation discovered the Farm Security Administration photos, he had the idea to revisit his early work on the island. Several grants underwrote the cost, as the Delanos returned to the scenes of their youthful adventures. They found an island – and people – that had been transformed, and not always for the better. At the same time, they were able to discern the fundamental spirit that had so moved them decades earlier.

Among the 200 images in the resulting exhibition — later published in “Puerto Rico Mio” by the Smithsonian – was one of a funeral, taken in 1946 in Fajardo. A man walks down the street toting an infant’s coffin on his shoulder, a handful of people behind him. A visitor to the show wrote in the guest book: “Mr. Delano – Thank you for making it possible for me to witness the funeral of my little sister, who died before I was born.”

A son, Pablo Delano, himself a photographer, sees no coincidence in the fact that his father had no idea where he was heading in 1941.

“It was totally serendipitous,” he said. “It changed a lot of lives, and produced this whole body of work.”

Even in his final years, Pablo Delano said, his father was always willing to share his insights. Jack Delano’s phone number was listed, and people would call, asking him to come and talk at a school.

“He went to what I think were extreme lengths for somebody of his age and physical condition,” Pablo Delano  said. “But if some sixth-grade teacher called and said, ‘Mr. Delano, we’re learning about Puerto Rico in the 1940s and wondered if you could come to speak to the kids,’ he would get into his Honda Civic and drive out there. And his driving was terrible, like Mr. Magoo. He’d drive to a mountain town, find the school, hobble in and talk to the kids.”

Respect for the thing in front of the camera. And when he died, his adopted land repaid that respect.

“The flag of Puerto Rico was draped on his coffin,” Pablo Delano said. “We still have that flag. It’s a very meaningful thing to us.”

For the original report go to http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/a-masterwork-spanning-40-years-and-one-island/

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