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Marjory Collins (1912-1985)

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Biographical Essay


Marjory Collins1 described herself as a "rebel looking for a cause."2 She began her photojournalism career in New York City in the 1930s by working for such magazines as PM and U.S. Camera. At a time when relatively few women were full-time magazine photographers, such major photo agencies as Black Star, Associated Press, PIX, and Time, Inc., all represented her work.

In 1941, Collins joined Roy Stryker's team of photographers at the U.S. Office of War Information to document home front activities during World War II. She created remarkable visual stories of small town life, ethnic communities, and women war workers. The more than 3,000 images she took in 1942-43 are preserved in the Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

After World War II, Collins combined three careers--photographer, editor, and writer. She traveled internationally as a freelance photographer for both the U.S. government and the commercial press. She also participated in social and political causes and was an active feminist who founded the journal Prime Time (1971-76) "for and by older women." Her study of the role of older women in society resulted in an M.A. degree in American Studies from Antioch College West in 1984, shortly before her death from cancer in 1985 in San Francisco.

Collins' work and life merit further study. The upbeat nature of her photographs at the Library of Congress and the success of her writing career contrast strongly with the years of struggle and alienation emphasized in the different versions of her autobiography in her personal papers at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Early Life

Marjory Collins was born in New York City on March 15, 1912,3 to the socially prominent Frederick Lewis Collins and Elizabeth Everts Paine. Her father wrote for popular magazines and was also an editor--occupations that Collins would pursue as well. She grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and graduated from the elite Brearley School. Shortly after starting at Sweet Briar College and making her social debut, Collins married Yale student John "Jack" I. H. Baur (1909-1987) in 1933. The couple continued their education at the University of Munich during a year in Europe, before divorcing in 1935.

Determined to reject her patrician roots, Collins moved to Greenwich Village and a Bohemian life style. Between 1935 and 1940, she studied informally with avant-garde photographer Ralph Steiner and attended lectures and exhibitions sponsored by the Photo League. She sold her wedding silver to purchase a camera and became a documentary photographer.4 Major photo agencies soon represented her work, and her name appeared on the masthead of PM magazine, where Ralph Steiner was the photo editor. At the same time, she worked at US Camera, and an August 1941 story about Hoboken, New Jersey, helped her get a job at the New York office of the Foreign Service, US Office of War Information (OWI).

OWI Photographs

By January 1942, Collins had transferred to Washington, DC, to join Roy Stryker's famous team of documentary photographers.5 Over the next eighteen months, Collins completed approximately fifty different assignments consisting of three thousand photographs. Her upbeat, harmonious images reflected the OWI editorial requests for visual stories about the ideal American way of life and stories that showed the commitment of ordinary citizens in supporting the war effort. Many years later, Collins remembered, "Documenting the lives of Americans, discovering my own country for the first time, I was freed of the whims of publicity men wanting posed leg art."6

During World War II, race and ethnicity consciousness heightened around the globe. United States President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, to reaffirm a policy of full participation of people of every race, creed, color, and national origin in the national defense program. Multiculturalism became a topic of major importance for government agencies as the United States geared up for war. Collins worked closely with OWI colleagues John Vachon and Gordon Parks and contributed to a substantial photographic study of African Americans.

Many of her assignments involved photographing "hyphenated Americans," including Chinese-, Czech-, German-, Irish-, Italian-, Jewish-, and Turkish-Americans. The photographs were used to illustrate publications dropped behind enemy lines to reassure people in Axis-power countries that the United States was sympathetic to their needs. For example, using the popular "day-in-the-life" format favored by picture magazines, Collins portrayed the Winn family at work, at play, and at home. The Winns had arrived in New York from the Czech Republic about 1939 and appeared to be thriving in October 1942.

On the job, Collins gave rein to her curiosity about how the other half lived. Roy Stryker wrote in his April 13, 1943 "Gossip Sheet" for OWI staff, "Marjory is in Buffalo, working on women in industry. This is a special story on women workers for the London Overseas Office." "These photographs should ... portray representative types actually at work rather than posed 'cuties,'" and should show "the very important contribution made towards final victory and how they have adapted themselves to wartime conditions."7 For one of her topics, Collins covered a young widow (possibly giving her a fictitious name) and her six children, all less than twelve years of age. "Mrs. Grimm's" work outside the home as a crane operator forced heavy responsibility on her older children and required that her younger daughters stay in a foster home Monday through Friday. Some images reveal the family's poverty and their struggle to maintain nutrition and housekeeping ideals. With her social reform interests, Collins felt that this assignment was consistent with Stryker's encouragement to make "pictures of life as it is."8 She considered the Grimm Family images among her very best, but they also clashed with the glamorized Rosie-the-Riveter concept called for by the OWI.

Fellow OWI photographer Alfred Palmer complained that Collins' photographs sometimes showed "the seamy side of life."9 Palmer and others believed that the OWI had two roles--straight news for publication in the United States and propaganda for overseas audiences. Palmer's news group wanted to clean up photographs, while Stryker's photographers wanted to show how deeply Americans sacrificed to support the war. The Grimm Family photographs are among the last images by Collins that survive in the FSA/OWI Collection. A set of almost fifty photos taken in Tunisia in May and June 1942 are credited to Collins, but no textual records have been found that explain this trip.

Later Life

In 1944, Collins went to Alaska as a freelance photographer for a construction company. By 1945, she had married and divorced again. After World War II, she worked as a freelance photographer in Egypt, Ireland, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Italy for U.S. government agencies and the commercial press. Sometime between 1948 and 1950, another marriage failed, and her husband destroyed the bulk of her prints and negatives. Her entry in Photo-Graphic 1949: The Annual of America's Leading Photographers was a New Year's Eve party scene that she had taken several years earlier while working for the OWI.

For the next thirty years, Collins worked as an editor and writer as well as a photographer. From her home in Vermont, she participated in social and political causes including the civil rights, Vietnam War protest, and women's movements. She founded and edited the vanguard publication Peace Concerns (began 1962) and was associated with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. During the late 1960s, she worked for the American Public Health Association and was an editor for the Journal of Public Health.

In 1971, Collins founded the first magazine to address the needs of the mature women, called Prime Time, "for the liberation of women in the prime of life." This national monthly magazine was published in New York from 1971-76 and reached a print run of 3,000. As Collins recalled, "Ageism and sexism hit me hard four years ago when I found myself out of a job and forced to go on welfare to have an operation. I became so angry I started PRIMETIME, a journal for and by older women."10 During the 1980s, Collins lived in San Francisco and obtained an M.A. in American Studies at Antioch College West, where she studied the role of older women in society. She was researching a pictorial exhibition on women's history when she died of cancer in 1985 at the age of seventy-three.

Notes

1 Essay written by Beverly Brannan, Photography Curator at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. The primary biographical source is the Marjory Collins Papers (unprocessed), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, as quoted in Jeanie Cooper Carson, "Shifting Icons of Womanpower from Depression to Wartime in US Office of War Information Propaganda." Paper presented at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, June 1996.

2 Carson, "Shifting Icons," 20.

3 Telephone interview between a friend of Collins and Beverly Brannan, July 26, 1986.

4 Ibid.

5 The Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection is available at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/fsaabt.html.

6 Carson, Shifting Icons, 7.

7 Roy Stryker. Gossip Sheet, April 16, 1943. Roy Stryker Papers.

8 Carson, "Shifting Icons," 8.

9 Carson, "Shifting Icons," 11.

10 Calendar, probably printed in 1975, in the Collins Papers.


Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2009. Last revised: April 2009.
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  October 22, 2010
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