This digital capture of a 4×5" Kodachrome transparency of Jack Whinery and his wife Edith was taken by Russell Lee in Pie Town, NM, in Sept 1940. It was developed using Kodak’s first stable process for Kodachrome (1939) and, 70 years later, still looks completely stunning. Lee manages not only to capture hardship and poverty but also dignity and grace.
In 1935 President Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration to provide “rehabilitation loans and resettlement opportunities to farmers impoverished by drought, soil erosion, and the effects of the Great Depression.” Roy Stryker, the head of FSA’s historical section, hired photographers such as Dorothea Lange,1 Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Russell Lee to document the agency’s work. Although the intent was to propagandize New Deal policies, the result would be some of the most important photojournalism in American history.
Lee. along with his wife Jane, arrived in Pie Town, a community of nearly 200 homesteaders, in Jun 1940. As the Magdalena News put it: “Mr. Lee of Dallas, Texas, is staying in Pietown, taking pictures of most anything he can find. Mr. Lee is a photographer the United States department of agriculture. Most of the farmers are planting beans this week.”
Of Lee’s 624 Pie Town photos now online at the LOC2 a disproportionate share are of the Caudill, Norris and Whinery families. Here is more detail on my favorite – the Whinery family.
Abrim Jackson (“Jack”) Whinery (11 Jun 1907–1994) married Laura Edith (“Edith”) Evans (b. 5 May 1909). The family moved around the Texas panhandle as Jack worked as a farm laborer and in 1939 they moved to Pie Town to stake out an FSA homestead claim. When they arrived they had 30 cents to their name, which Jack spent buying nails to build their dirt-floored dugout:
The family farmed pinto beans and corn (as well as tobacco in the garden), using a handmade plow driven by two burros. Jack also volunteered his services as a licensed minister.
Jack and Edith had seven children,3 two of which were taken after this portrait: Laura, Wanda, Velva Mae (29 Sept 1931–27 May 2007), Abrim (“AJ”) (b. 24 Oct 1933), Lawrence (d. 1944), Meriam Marcie and Floyd:
After 1940 little is known about the Whinery’s, although by the 1950s the growing conditions in Pie Town had deteriorated to the point where most of the homesteaders moved on. Most of the Whinery children eventually ended up in Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado.4
1. Lange’s 4×5" photograph of Florence Thomson in Nipomo, CA, titled Migrant Mother, has become the iconic image of the Great Depression:
2. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division holds more than 177,000 B&W negatives and more than 1600 color photos in their Farm Security Administration/ Office of War Information collection. Here are all of Russell Lee’s Pie Town photos.
3. Here is yet another family portrait of the Whinery’s, taken in Jun 1940:
4. Here is more information about the family from Velva Mae Kosakowski’s 2007 obit: “Survivors include Laura Murray of Clifton; A.J. Whinery of Dayton, Nev.; Floyd Whinery of Clifton... She was preceded in death by her mother and father, her brother, Lawrence Whinery and sister, Wanda Whinery.”
5 Dec 2010 ‧ Photography