John Vachon's Chicago in candid photos, 1941

In the hardships caused by the Great Depression, the US government created the Agricultural Security Administration to help poor farmers get back on their feet. One of the FSA's most notable efforts was its small team of documentary photographers, who traveled the country recording the living conditions of Americans.

John Vachon's first job in the Farm Security Administration held the title "assistant messenger." He was twenty-one years old, and had come to Washington from his native Minnesota to attend the Catholic University of America.

Vachon had no intention of becoming a photographer after taking office in 1936, but as his responsibilities for maintaining the FSA photographic file grew, his interest in photography grew.

Like fellow FSA photographer Edwin Roskam, Vachon arrived in Chicago in 1941. While Roskam covered the experience of African Americans in the city's Southside, Vachon, a still rookie photographer, took a different approach.

His laid-back visuals belie his status as a young photographer gaining experience, but he has a new, effortless approach to photography that makes the work uniquely his.

Vachon's portrayal of Chicago abject poverty empties between a home of well-heeled women on shopping trips, as men slip on the sidewalk or stand outside a local bar. From the glossy exterior to the gritty underbelly, the young photographer deftly captured the multifaceted face of 1941 Chicago.

John Vachon was a photographer for the Office of War Information in Washington, DC from 1942 to 1943, and then a staff photographer for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey between 1943 and 1944.

After serving in the Army in 1944–45, Vachon joined the Photo League in 1947, where he wrote book reviews for Photo Notes and participated in several exhibitions.

Between 1945 and 1947 he photographed New Jersey and Venezuela for the standard, and Poland for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

Vachon became a staff photographer for Life magazine, where he worked between 1947 and 1949, and worked for Look magazine for twenty-five years, beginning in 1947.

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