I like this trio of photos by Louise Rosskam, which capture two men on a town common bench evidently enjoying a funny story or joke.
They were taken in Vergennes, Vermont, in August 1940.*
New England commons were (and are) community spaces that probably evolved from the lots originally set aside for village meetinghouses or churches. After the mid 19th century, many began to function like parks.†
In a 1965 oral history interview, she related how she proposed taking these pictures for the FSA, where her husband, Edwin, was a photo editor.
. . . [O]nce I took a vacation in Vermont, and I said to Roy [E. Stryker, head of the Information Division],”Could I take some pictures for you?” you know, “I’ll buy my own film and everything.” And he said, “Oh, here’s some film,” and then he starts rambling along about Vermont and really it didn’t sound as if it had anything to do with what you wanted to do at all. You started talking about hills, farmhouses and how people build a little extension on the house for the old people, and about pickled limes, the sky and how to get to Vermont 50 years ago, you know; by the time you got through listening to him ramble along, you begin to get some sort of formation in your mind of what there was up there so that when you get out there (phone rings)-
LOUISE ROSSKAM: (continues after phone conversation) But I’m sure that everybody sitting around, listening to Roy ramble, as it seemed, began to get his mind turned in the direction to be open to a lot of things that ordinarily he wouldn’t perceive when he got to a place. Don’t you think that’s true?
For many years afterward, her Vermont photos were attributed to her husband. The records were corrected in 2001.
Laura Katzman, an associate professor of art history at James Madison University, curated two exhibits of Louise Rosskam’s photos and described her work like this:
She was one of those documentary photographers for whom the people and the work were so much more important than her name or her career. . . . She tried to erase herself as much as possible. It was a pure documentary ideal that was impossible to achieve: let the subject feel comfortable, take yourself out of it and see what happens in the encounter. She did this beautifully because her ego wasn’t invested in it.
You can see four more photos by Rosskam of the Vergennes common by clicking on ‘Continue reading’ below.
*All via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
†Vergennes is actually a city — the first chartered in Vermont and currently its smallest (in population). It is approximately 2.5 sq. miles in area.