UNC Institute for the Environment Senior Associate Director and author Tony Reevy is giving a talk at Bull's Head Bookshop to discuss his new book, "The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano." Staff writer Morgan Howard spoke with Reevy about his writing process and his interest in Delano's art and life story.
The Daily Tar Heel: What inspired you to write about Jack Delano and his photography?
Tony Reevy: I discovered his photography about eight years ago when I was writing an article on a photographer, who is much better known, Walker Evans. I was struck by three things. One, he came over as a child from what is now the Ukraine in 1923, and my father came over from what is now Slovakia in 1923.
The second thing was that he’s considered one of the great 10 farm security administration photographers, but I soon discovered other than an autobiography, not much had been written about him. I saw that as a real gap about what’s available about these photographers.
And finally, just the quality of his handiwork, especially his portraits.
DTH: Is your book about his photography, but also about Delano himself and his story?
TR: It has about 160 plates, and they’re all railroad subject photos. The introduction to the book is more of an extended biographic sketch about Jack Delano. That is not something, as far as I could tell, that had existed before: a fairly extensive biography of him that provides notes that allow people to look back at sources. I certainly hope that someone will do a general survey of Delano’s photography. Jack Delano was given the assignment of covering the railroad industry's contribution in the war effort during World War II, so there are lots of images to use to put together a great book. Delano is a great photographer, and I think that he’s been under-recognized. I hope that this book will go some way towards getting him more recognition.
DTH: What was your writing process like?
TR: This is the second photo book I’ve done. Typically I discover a subject and, unlike fiction and poetry, you want to sell the book before you write. I approach a publisher with a book proposal, and if they accept that, then I typically select the images. Then, once I have the book under contract, I write the narrative.
In many cases these are photographers I’ve loved for a long time, and I’ve done a lot of research already. The narrative is about 20 to 30,000 words, and it usually takes me about a year to write that much narrative. In Delano’s case, the photos are on the Web, so you don’t have to leave your home to look at them, which is very cool. Other photographers I’ve written about or am writing about — their photos are held in various places. I have to get a research grant to go and take time off work to go look at the photos if they aren’t available on the Web.
DTH: You said your focus is on railroad photography. What’s your favorite aspect of that topic?
TR: Railroads and photography are technologies that grew up together in the United States. Railroads are a fairly common topic for photography. It’s also a topic that people are interested in and therefore you can do successfully with a photo book. Personally, I’ve always been interested in trains and I’ve written a lot about subject photography. It’s a topic that interests people, that publishers feel confident in doing, and something I’m personally interested in.
DTH: What’s the most interesting thing you found out about Delano through your research?
TR: My father is from Slovakia, a place with a long history that dictates much what happens there. Because of where my father’s family is from, I’ve been interested in immigration, just generally since my father immigrated here. What really interested me about Delano personally was how he was able to reinvent himself twice in the United States.
He came to the United States as a young child as Jacob Ovcharov. His mother was a dentist and his father was a teacher who later worked in a furniture factory. Years after he came here, he changed his name to Jack Delano and made his living as a photographer during the Great Depression. After military service in World War II, he had fallen in love with Puerto Rico while he was assigned to take pictures of it. He and his wife moved to Puerto Rico and renamed themselves again. They learned Spanish. Their children grew up there. In Puerto Rico, Delano wrote music, designed museums, helped fund their public broadcasting system and for many years, directed the classics of Puerto Rico cinemas. He not only renamed himself twice, he was also incredibly multitalented.
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