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New! Jack Delano's American Crossroads

In our newest Vintage Edition, Jack Delano captures America at a crossroads in this wintry, otherworldly image. We're excited to debut Delano's war-era railway photography just as the weather has begun to dip low at our headquarters in NYC!

Santa Fe R.R. Freight Train in Corwith Yard, Chicago, Ill. by Jack Delano
10"x8" ($24) | 14"x11" ($60) | 20"x16" ($240)

Modern transportation is decidedly slick compared to the monstrosity of steel and brute force of yesteryear. Even so, Santa Fe R.R. Freight Train in Corwith Yard, Chicago, Ill. looks like a snowy daydream—with an Iron Horse smack dab in the center. Jack Delano created this image for the Farm Security Administration while he was the organization's chief railway photographer. It’s easy to see why Delano was the FSA’s go-to guy for trains. He had a tendency toward precision and a knack for capturing the perfect moment: the puffs of steam pour plumply over the parallel tracks, while the hint of text that peeks out from the black-and-white boxcar suggests geographical context. These are smart, subtle decisions, and the sign of a studied eye.

Delano’s background is surely in part to blame for that approach. A Renaissance man in the truest sense of the word, he studied viola as a child, went to university for illustration, wrote classical compositions, and picked up photography while studying in Europe. He understood and appreciated synchronicity on a profound level. Delano once asked a conductor to inch a train forward to get the perfect shot, and wrote that in doing so “he felt like Hercules”. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—all this, Delano also recognized the shortcomings of each art form. During his year documenting war-time rail service, Delano wrote a poetic diary entry entitled “Things I cannot photograph”:

    A train is approaching us!

    The glare of the headlight

    With a WHOOSH of thunder as it flies by us.

    The brakeman gets down from the cupola and watches it go by

    Two red lights and a white one pass us

    The white one waves up and down.

    We answer

    Then back again to the drone

    I throw a cigarette out of the window

    It whirls off in the backwash scattering sparks wildly like fireworks

    The blackness again.

His words and this image perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the railways in 1943—in looking at them, we witness America at a pivotal point. Steam locomotives were going the way of the horse, quickly being replaced by diesel. As such, in 1941, the FSA’s direction became more war-oriented (the Farm Security Administration became part of the Office of War Information), and their photographers changed their focus from individuals to industry.

Despite that change, artists like Jack Delano stayed true to their point of view and to their roots, aiming to do justice to their subjects—whether that subject was a plume of steam, or an armor of steel.

With art for everyone,
Jen Bekman + Team 20x200