Jack Delano's gorgeous color images from the 1940s remind us of the day when railroads dominated the American landscape -- and the American consciousness. The gigantic locomotives, the play of light on steel rails and the huge roundhouses were all elements that spurred the imagination and presented a subject of infinite possibilities for a photographer. The railroads had bound the country together and opened the West. Chicago was the hub, especially the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company's Proviso yard.
Working for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, he traveled across America photographing the effects of the Depression on American life. At the time, the railroads meant freedom and they seduced thousands of unemployed men -- and some women -- to ride the rails. They hitched rides on freight trains and hid in empty cars or slept on top of them, always on the alert for the railroad cops. In the depths of the Depression, their primary goal was to get "somewhere else" and find a job.
Born Jacob Ovcharov in 1914 in the small Russian village of Voroshilovka, Delano came to America in 1923 with his parents and younger brother. By the age of 9 his creative talents were already evident, and he attended the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia where he studied graphic arts, photography and the viola. After that he continued his studies of illustration and music at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts until 1932.
In 1941, Stryker sent Delano to photograph rural poverty in Puerto Rico. He fell in love with the island and, in 1946, he and his wife Irene settled there permanently. Delano began to write music, and for the next 50 years produced full orchestral, chamber and instrumental works, choral pieces and more. (You can see and hear one of his compositions played by the Orquesta Sinfonica del Conservatorio de Puerto Rico below.)
In Puerto Rico, Delano began to make movies of island life and, in 1953, directed and wrote the score for a film called Los Peloteros about poor rural kids and their love for baseball. The film became a classic in Puerto Rican cinema.
Like so many photographers of his time, Delano was a multi-faceted talent. And although he died in 1997, he left us the legacy of his superb photographs and his music compositions.
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