The Sunday porch: Washington, D.C.

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Rowhouses,  Southwest Washington, D.C., between 1941 and 1942, by Louise Rosskam on Kodachrome color film, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The photos show cast iron stoops and steps, which were typical in many D.C. neighborhoods after the city’s building boom of the 1870s.

“Iron was strong, inexpensive to produce, manufactured quickly, and easily assembled with little on-site labor,” according to an interesting pamphlet by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society on the history and care of old cast iron and wrought iron.

“Washington had five foundries in 1870 and fifteen most years from 1895 to 1905,” according to the pamphlet.  Because of the industry’s dependence on water (or rail) connections to obtain raw materials, they “were usually in Georgetown, near the canal terminus, or along Maine Avenue on the Potomac River Waterfront.”

At first, I thought that both of the photographs above were of the same two houses.  Then I realized that the screen doors are different and that the brickwork over the windows is painted white in only one of the pictures.

The narrow open passageway between both sets of houses is interesting.

You can see what the corner of N and Union (now 6th) Streets, S.W., looks like today here.

In the windows of the houses with the children on the steps, you can just see the families’ Blue Star service flags (put your cursor on the slideshow to pause it). They reveal that the family on the left had one son in the war and the family on the right had two. (A gold star on a window flag would indicate that a son had been killed.)

Life in gardens: conversation

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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.†

Although Rosskam was not employed there, a series of photos that she took in rural Vermont became part of the picture archives of the Farm Security Administration.

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.

The Sunday porch: Lincoln, Vermont

The Sunday porch/enclos*ure: Lincoln VT, 1940, by L. Rosskam, via Library of Congress“Front porch. Lincoln, Vermont,” July 1940, by Louise Rosskam, via the FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The porch as a farm woman’s summertime mission control room. . .

Her broom (and 4H posters) are on the wall, and more cleaning and gardening tools are behind the chair.  She has stacks of magazines (and TIME in hand).  Her potted plants are doing well.  Above them are fishing poles and a kite.

The cat dozes above the steps — I think the scrub board behind the broken screen is there to keep him out of the house.

The wash tub is setting on a shelf built across the angle where the two sides of the porch meet.  This puzzled me until I realized that it must be there to catch rainwater from the roof.

The photographer, Louise Rosskam (1910-2003), was “one of the elusive pioneers of what has been called the golden age of documentary photography,” according to the Library of Congress.

Like many of her photos, this image was attributed for many years to her husband Edwin, who was also a photographer.  At the time it was taken — as part of a series on rural Vermont — he was working as an editor for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) of the U.S. government.

Her first professional photography work had been in the mid 1930s for the Philadelphia Record.  The paper would only actually hire Edwin, so he recouped her wages by including them on his expense vouchers under “gas and oil.”

The couple then produced documentary photo books on San Francisco and Washington, D.C. (but only Edwin’s name appeared on the covers).  After 1939, when Edwin went to work for the FSA, Louise began to take freelance photographs.  In the 40s, they both worked for Standard Oil Company.

Near the end of her life, Louise began to write to institutions like the Library of Congress correcting the credit given to Edwin for her own photos.  There’s an interesting interview with her from 2000 here.