Marjory Collins was born in 1912 in New York City.
Her father was a prominent magazine writer and editor.
She grew up in Scarsdale and attended an elite school.
While attending Sweet Briar College, she met and married a Yale student in 1933, but the marriage lasted only two years.
In 1935 Marjory moved to Greenwich Village and studied photography with Ralph Steiner. In 1940 she began
her career as a documentary photographer .
In her book about FSA/OWI female photographers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, Andrea Fisher included Marjory Collins in pointing out: “Research thus far has revealed only fragments about the
backgrounds and concerns of the lesser known photographers (whose lives) have sadly remained completely obscured” .
Collins worked for Black Star and the Associated Press agencies before being hired by US Camera magazine. Her US Camera story on Hoboken, New Jersey in 1941 helped her get a job with the Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington DC. Working for Roy Stryker, she contributed wartime propaganda and historical photographs for the FSA/OWI files. Over a period of 18 months, she created over 3,000 photographs about American life and the commitment of citizens to supporting the war effort .
In 1941 President Roosevelt issued an executive order affirming equal participation for all races, creeds and national origins in the defense program. The idea of multiculturalism became important as America prepared for war. Marjory Collins’ assignments included depicting “… Chinese-, Turkish-,
German-, Irish-, Italian-, Jewish-, and Czech-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 .
Collins was also assigned to do stories on women in industry. One of her stories focused on the struggles of a mother of six who worked as a crane operator while living in poverty and struggling to feed her children and maintain a clean home. The Grimm Family photographs did not fit with the OWI’s demand for positive images, and a male photographer complained that Collins’ pictures were unseemly. These were among her last photographs preserved in the FSA/OWI collection. Although she later did a story in Tunisia, there are no saved records of this trip .
Marjory Collins worked for the FSA/OWI until 1943. After World War II, she did freelance photography in Europe and
Africa. When her second marriage ended in divorce in 1950, her husband destroyed the majority of her prints and
negatives. Collins ended her career as a photographer. During the 50s and 60s she participated in civil rights, Vietnam War protests, and women’s movements, while also editing the Journal of Public Health. She was forced out of work by ageism and sexism, and had to go on welfare. She was so angry that in 1971 she founded a feminist publication for older women called Prime Time. She died in San Francisco in 1985 at age 73, while doing research for a pictorial exhibition on women’s history .
A Car and A Doll
Andrea Fisher analyzes two of Collins’ photographs, even
using one for the cover of her book Let us now Praise Famous Women. The 1942 photograph is entitled Sleeping in a car on Sunday in Rock Creek park. Washington DC. It is representative of what Fisher believes was a radical change from photographs that brought the viewer a sense of satisfaction and unity (such as those by Lange and Post Wolcott) to photographs that caused an unsettling, disparate response in the viewer .
The photograph shows the languidly-draped head and arm of an unashamedly seductive sleeping woman. The softly lit surfaces of the car seem an extension of her skin. The car – a classic phallic symbol of
male power - seems to replace her body, challenging the viewer’s sense of comfort by making her seem like one of the boys. Her closed eyes make it impossible for us to meet her gaze, and we are disturbed in not knowing her unseen dreams. She appears to have drifted into her own reverie. Our eye is diverted to the undulating, sensuous surfaces of the whole image, from the intruding round white bumper of another car to the surfaces of cars adjacent and in the distance. We see parts of bodies and fragments of objects and tonal surfaces, receiving only partial narratives .
Unlike Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott’s pictures in which the subject and viewer connect gazes and share a sense of humanity, this subject's hidden fantasy intrudes upon our ability to look at her as a mirror of ourselves. By virtue of her partial body and closed eyes, there is an absence about her. Her position in the car oscillates between power and lack of power. By sitting at the wheel in command of the vehicle, she has the power of mobility, but gives up that power through sleep. We may imagine her eventually driving away, yet feel she is trapped in the paralysis of reverie. Seen as caged in the vehicle, the woman becomes captured prey and an object of desire. But then we realize the car’s open top frees her from this containment. Her arm spilling out tells us she is not trapped and can never be completely contained .
Collins’ photograph entitled R.H. Macy & Co. department
store during the week before Christmas. New York, New York offers a commentary on the masquerade and fiction of
the feminine identity. In an
unexpected twist, instead of the shopper surveying the mannequin, the larger-than-life mannequin stares down in observation of the crowd below. Collins seems to be suggesting the mannequin has gotten over on the people, except that a doll’s gaze is ultimately an impotent one . This implies the lack of real power held by women, even when a woman is in a seemingly advantageous position.
Marjory Collins brought to light the issue of whether women have power and receive the credit they deserve. Collins can be seen as an early feminist in her focus on questions that would re-appear in the 1960-80s women’s rights movement. There is a psychological element to her work not found in earlier documentary photographs of the FSA and OWI. This is epitomized in her Rock Creek park
photograph in which the female
subject is disconnected from the viewer, and many interpretations of the image are possible including that it represents the concept of power vs lack of power. The idea of a woman
having but then giving up power was pertinent in the 1940s. Women had power when they went to work, but gave up that power when men returned from the War wanting their jobs back. Single women had power through independence, but lost that power when they married and had no reproductive rights, and
were tied down to large families.
Collins calls attention to
the mixed messages about women in American society. Is a woman a sexual object, or her own autonomous person? Should she be contained or free? We
take the answers to these questions for granted today, but in the 1940s the answers were different than we would like to admit.
Collins’ Macys & Co picture is a powerful image of a
woman’s dilemma, that even today is very relevant. The fashionably-dressed doll seems the perfect image of class status and success. But she has no real power if she is nothing but eye candy for the rest of society. Today's culture of mass media, television and internet emphasizes the same idealized, visually-appealing image, to the detriment of women. In some ways we are back to square one, the media encouraging us to pursue the goal of pleasing men, the outcome of which is women again giving up power.
Collins herself fell victim to the forces she was trying to expose. She was forced out of her editing job because of ageism and sexism. Her ex-husband assumed he had every right to destroy her prints and negatives, which was equivalent to destroying her identity and her personal contribution to the world. Her photographs preserved by the OWI, however, will continue to be an inspiration to other American women and all society. They are a testament to the power of her message and importance of her life's work.