I've been doing picture research and returned the other day to the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Office of War Information (OWI) digital archives, the wonderful treasure trove for the Great Depression and home front during World War II. (An earlier post about the collection's color slides can be found here.) This is one of those shots, the color muted but deep, and striking.
Photographer John Vachon took it in 1942, of a worker in a carbon black plant on the Texas panhandle. These factories "make carbon," Vachon explained, "which is powdery black stuff in big bags worth 3 cents a pound, used in making tires, paints, & numerous other places." He described to his wife what it was like to approach:
Natural gas was the raw material for carbon black and these factories were quite extensive. The one Vachon visited had about 300 smaller buildings, called "hot houses," where each house contained several hundred jets burning natural gas. The gas was deliberately burned without sufficient oxygen, which produced the black powdery residue, then collected into bags. Even visiting the plant, Vachon got "dirtier, that is blacker, than I have ever been in my life. Really black all over. Right through the clothes it goes. I washed carefully my face and hands, but I'm leaving the rest for a while, it's really kind of beautiful. It gets very shiny when you rub it."
Obviously, the work went on decades before clean air and workplace safety regs were in place!
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors