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The Trainyards Welder

This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
On the Station Platform
Look at This Photo of The Bronx in 1970
trainyard worker
Mike Evans, a welder at the rip tracks at Proviso Yard of the C & NW RR Chicago Apr 1943. Image from the Library of Congress.

What Can We See?

What can we see in this photo? We can see a rather dirty man standing in front of a Chicago & North Western Railroad car, dressed in work clothes, a welder's torch draped over his shoulder. He looks serious, but relaxed. We know from the title that this man is Mike Evans and he is at the Proviso train yards in Chicago, USA. It is April, 1943.

We can read, reversed, "EASTMAN—SAFETY—KODAK" on the rebate of the film. The distinctive notches, black border, and clip marks on the film tell us that this is a large-format negative.

The picture has a muted, complementary colour palette: a powder blue sky and deep-blue details offset the rich, earthy brown, gold, and red of the car and yard. The composition puts the subject in the middle of the frame, but although he holds our focus he does not dominate. The photographer has included enough of the scene to give us context and enough complexity to move our eye around the frame. All of these elements work well together: this is a very well-balanced, dynamic portrait.

In many ways this picture is similar to Gordon Parks' portrait of Ella Watson, a previous photo in this series.

How Does This Image Make You Feel?

We know that Mike Evans is a hard-working man. We know he’s hard working as he’s covered in the dirt from the day’s toil. He likes his job, though, and he is proud to do what he does: we know this from his relaxed demeanour, the way he leans casually and confidently on the machinery of his trade. Evans' tools are all around him, over his shoulder, almost an extension of himself.

"I was interested in people not only as images, but also as human beings. In stories that they would tell me or interviews I had with them. It seemed to be it was an important part of what I was trying to communicate."Jack Delano

The photographer who made this picture, Jack Delano, is renowned for his portrayal of the ‘ordinary’ working person, and the first thing that hits me about this picture is the direct connection you feel with the subject. Evans seems very human, his regard honest and intimate. There is a real connection.

We can tell some things about the photographer, too, from the way this photo was made. Like the subject, the composition has a particular confidence. The low angle makes the welder seem tall, impressive; formidable even. Delano often "played with scale to underline the strength of character in his subjects."

Behind the Picture: Jack Delano and the Farm Security Administration

Jack Delano (formerly Jack Ovcharov) was born in Kiev, in the Ukraine in 1914 before moving to the US in 1923. He studied arts, photography, and music before earning a traveling scholarship that would see him visit Europe and buy the camera that really sparked his interest in photography.

After graduating, Delano worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) Photography Program. Unlike many of the other FSA photographers, Delano's work included many urban scenes and perspectives. In 1942, Delano started to document America’s railroads, which is where our photograph comes in. This was during the Second World War, and it was important for the US to look powerful, plentiful, and industrious.

Delano’s pictures weren’t just propaganda, of course, but thoughts and talk of the war would have been inescapable. The timing of the project, right after the US had joined the war and not long before Delano would be drafted himself, strongly supports this. According to the New York Times, Delano was often given direction to show schools, education, and relevant to our picture here: strong Americans and machinery.

Your Turn!

Mrs. Elibia Siematter, working as a sweeper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa. Image: Library of Congress

Here we have Mrs Elibia Siematter sweeping at the Roundhouse in Iowa. What do you read from this image? Does the fact that the subject is a woman change how you'd interpret it?

If you're unsure of what to look for in a photograph, check out Dawn Oosterhoff's excellent article How to Read a Photograph and let us know what you see.

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