Southern Florida

The entrance to one of the better hotels,
Marion Post Wolcott, Miami Beach, Florida.

While the Depression waged on and Dorothea Lange traveled to the Dust Bowl to capture the plaintive plight of migrant workers, Marion Post Wolcott undertook a very different sort of mission. She headed to Southern Florida where she spent much of her time photographing wealthy resorters. Juxtaposing scenes of opulence with the struggles of orange pickers only miles away, Wolcott made a powerful statement about Florida and the nation, a statement the FSA was only too eager to promote.

The depression hit Florida's poor particular hard, because even before the fields froze over and national demand quickly shrank, the state possessed little good farmland. Even in the best of days, many farmers struggled to get by on land that only would produce a marginal yield (Carlebach & Provenzo 13-14). The Agriculture Adjustment Act proved very helpful in Florida, but it primarily benefited large and established farms. More marginal farmers gained very little. When Wolcott arrived in Florida in 1939, the FSA had four major projects underway in Florida, and it was her challenge to show why they were needed and how they were helping.

She came to Florida in January during a "freeze-out" and pleaded with Stryker to let her stay until the thaw. During this time she could show the devastation inflicted upon poor workers, but she also would have the time to photograph the upper strata of society the FSA so often ignored. Stryker approved, instructing her to shoot "some of the tourist towns, which will show up how the 'lazy rich' waste their time" (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 175). Wolcott clearly had no problems finding places to point her camera as the decadent beach scene above and the high-arching hotel entrance attest. Both images depict not just a scene of lavishness but the "lazy rich" Stryker was so determined to go after. Several young people loaf along the beach, and an older man calmly relaxes in the archway gate. Both images attest to a uniquely Floridian setting but seek to point out a more encompassing American problem.

Three photos of southern Florida, Marion Post Wolcott.

The three above photos provide a case study of how Wolcott was able to use artistic techniques to play upon the unique regional identity of Florida in order to illustrate the plight of the Sunshine State's poor. Inserted between the laughing and frolicking poolside trio and the tanning man being served food is the toiling and lonely figure of a man picking oranges in a deserted field. The work that Wolcott dubbed "contrast material" greatly enhanced the power of the center image (Brannan & Fleischhauer 176). Florida's warm weather attracted a wealthier citizenry, and Wolcott did all she could to exploit their extravagance. To further depersonalize the rich, Wolcott avoided their eye contact with the camera; lacking the stare of a Floyd Burroughs, these figures were much more difficult to know. She preferred to shoot them in crowds as seen by the pool and at the beach, and she usually remained far away from the figures--making them difficult, if not impossible, to personalize (Brannan & Fleischhauer 176). As photo-historian Sally Stein states, photos like the one of the man being served dinner mark one of the few times the FSA employed a class-based focus (Brannan & Fleischhauer 174). Still Stryker hesitated to acknowledge, stating in the mid-1960s that "there was just a little bit of, not cynicism, a little bit of the critic's viewpoint in that series of pictures and, yet, warmth" (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 176). The middle shot in the collage above features a worker in Homestead, Florida, just a few dozen miles south of Miami. In capturing this image, Wolcott employs a quite different technique. Unlike the rich she shoots, the man in this photo is utterly unknown. His lack of importance and the near futility of his toil is exaggerated by her distance from him, which shows the giant field and larger landscape and the man's small place in either.

Wolcott's photographs of Southern Florida became some of the most popular in the collection in large part because "the contrast between the prosperity of the new farmer-growers in South and Central Florida and the abject poverty of most of the farm workers was not lost on some members of the press" (Carlebach & Provenzo 10). Wolcott used the readily identifiable environment of Florida to complete one of the FSA's most powerful indictments against inaction. Florida proved a radically different setting in which to observe American life in the depression, but as Stryker observed in defense of the use of the photos, "it's still America" (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 177).

Intro Stryker and the FSA Documentary Photography as a Medium Local vs. National Blue Ridge Mountains Southern Florida Central Alabama Mississippi Delta Conclusion

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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: May 10, 1999