We Watch Them Go By – Miners, Mobsters, Masculinity and Marion Post Wolcott
Now I’ve tried drinking rye and gamblin’
Dancing with damnation is a ball
But of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself
Well you might be my favourite one of all
Gillian Welch – Tennessee
It is the car. It must be the car. The casual posture of the men. The clothes. The high-waisted trousers, the brimmed hats. The building in the background, with its white timber slats. When I first studied this photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, I scribbled down that it reminded me of the key scene in the film Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002). Perhaps it is the tension exuding from both the print and the celluloid. Perhaps it is the anticipation, the expectation, that something ominous is about to occur, that somebody – maybe everybody – will get hurt, that nobody will come out of this a winner.
A recap first. Road to Perdition is a film about a hitman named Sullivan. He works for the Irish mob in Rock Island, Illinois during the Great Depression. His eldest son, Michael Jr. is curious to find out exactly what his father is doing for a living. As a result, he accidentally witnesses his father and the son of the Godfather take out a disgruntled associate. Fearing betrayal, the Godfather’s son kills Sullivan’s wife and younger son, and tries to eliminate Sullivan and Michael Jr. as well. Father and son spend the rest of the film running for their lives. In the pivotal scene mentioned above, Sullivan returns to Rock Island for a final showdown with his former boss – whom he regards as a father figure – and his former associates.
The visual elements in the scene practically scream at the viewer that a moment of reckoning is about to take place. It is the dead of night, it is pouring with rain. The street is deserted, the lights are out, the street’s denizens are fast asleep or have made themselves scarce. Six mobsters step into street and spread themselves out. Some carry umbrellas. All wear trench coats and fedora hats. Their faces are shadowed, their expressions impenetrable. Time slows down. The only sound accompanying the scene is the soft tinkling of a piano.
Road to Perdition is essentially a film about father-son relationships, codes of honour, masculinity, violence, and finally the maxim that blood is thicker than water.
The men start casting glances around, increasingly frantic, in order to determine where the danger may come from. All of a sudden bullets begin to fly, seemingly from every direction. Desperately trying to make a last stand and returning fire, one after the other is mercilessly mowed down. The viewer never sees the perpetrator, only the flames bursting forth from the barrel of the machine gun. The Godfather remains unhurt until the end. Then Sullivan steps out of the dark, gun in hand. After a brief exchange of words – effectively a father bidding his adopted son farewell – our hitman pulls the trigger. The prodigal son has returned, with a vengeance.
Road to Perdition is essentially a film about father-son relationships, codes of honour, masculinity, violence, and finally the maxim that blood is thicker than water. The Godfather will choose and defend his useless son over his adopted son Sullivan, despite the latter’s unquestioning sense of duty, loyalty and devotion. Michael Jr. will not disown his real father, even as he is trying to come to terms with the latter’s actions. The film is about men sticking to a particular code of honour and respecting each other for it, even when it turns them into implacable enemies, even when a fight to the death is the only possible endgame. As the Godfather tells Sullivan just before the latter finishes him off: “I am glad it is you.”
“Well we played till we died and now we’re all dead
But the man says, ‘You gotta get up there again
And you can’t come down till the brimstone turns to ice’”
Graveyard Train – Ballad for Beelzebub
But whereas the codes of honour in Road to Perdition ultimately remain intact, the accepted forms of masculinity unchallenged, and women notably absent throughout the entire narrative, the opposite is at play in Post Wolcott’s photograph. It speaks of unwritten rules broken. It alludes to a particular male identity in crisis. It charts an impossible choice between providing for wives, sons and daughters now, or standing with co-workers to be able to do so in the future. It points to an unforgivable betrayal, to a decisive rupture of erstwhile unbreakable bonds of brotherhood. It hints at the violence simmering underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment. It captures the menacing promise of retribution evidenced by the placard placed against the concrete foundation: “We Watch The Scabs Go By”.
The sign is a poignant and not so subtle reminder to any miner crossing the picket line of the social exclusion and condemnation they will face in their communities, of the bloody punishment likely to be meted out to them. The association between violence and miners’ strikes was not an odd one in those days. Appalachia in the 1910s and early 1920s resembled a veritable war zone. Armed miners regularly battled it out with strike breakers, company guards, state police and – on occasion – even the army. During bloody episodes such as the Matewan Massacre and the Battle for Blair Mountain, people died by the score on both sides of the conflict.  Even though these historical events are now relatively unknown outside of their immediate locale, at the time they generated lurid national headlines.
It alludes to a particular male identity in crisis. It charts an impossible choice between providing for wives, sons and daughters now, or standing with co-workers to be able to do so in the future. It points to an unforgivable betrayal, to a decisive rupture of erstwhile unbreakable bonds of brotherhood. It hints at the violence simmering underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment.
When Post Wolcott took this photograph in 1939, matters had improved significantly for miners, due to the legalisation of unions and the introduction of a raft of labour regulations following the implementation of Franklyn D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Even so, work conditions and levels of pay were far from ideal. For a young, relatively inexperienced, female photographer to step into the fray, to negotiate access to such a fraught and potentially dangerous scene – bearing in mind that this is the American South during the Great Depression, with this particular history of violence – and to take this photograph must have demanded a significant amount of courage. At the same time I cannot help but wonder if one of her male colleagues in the photography unit of the Farm Security Administration could have produced this picture.
Post Wolcott came relatively late to the FSA project, only joining Roy Stryker’s team in 1938. Before that, she had been working as a freelance photographer for magazines such as Life, and briefly as staff photographer with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Her training in photography had mostly been informal, her work experience relatively minimal, especially in comparison with established names on the team such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Together with Lange, she was the only female photographer hired by Stryker. But unlike Lange, who worked part-time for the FSA and who was always accompanied by her husband, Post Wolcott worked alone. Throughout her four-year tenure, she travelled non-stop to produce a marvellous but undervalued body of work. More than any of her FSA colleagues, she was sent to areas rife with racial and class tensions. Somehow, she managed to gain access to communities that could easily have turned hostile to her enterprise, succeeded in establishing relationships with her subjects, in being allowed to take photographs.
Possibly because of this ongoing negotiation of her gender identity, this continuous questioning of her legitimacy as a photographer and of her independence in the field, Post Wolcott developed a very keen and subtle eye, maybe more so than the other photographers associated with the FSA project.
Even so, Post Wolcott’s gender and professional identity was continuously questioned, criticised and negotiated in the field. This is evident from letters exchanged between her and Stryker. In her first dispatch: “Some said they didn’t understand why I was riding around in that kind of country and roads all alone. A couple thought I was a gypsy […] because my hair was so “long & heavy” & I had a bandanna scarf on my head & bright coloured dress & coat.”  Stryker responds on 13 January 1939: “I am glad that you have now learned that you can’t depend on the wiles of femininity when you are in the wilds of the South. Colorful bandannas and brightly coloured dresses, etc., aren’t part of our photographers’ equipment. The closer you keep to what the great back-country recognizes as the normal dress code for women, the better you are going to succeed as a photographer.” 
It was not just her attire that raised eyebrows, but also her independence and individuality. In a letter dated 8 May 1939, Post Wolcott writes: “Driving at nite [sic] is definitely not a good idea for a gal alone in the South. And you know I’m no sissy. I’ve done it some, but no more than absolutely necessary. Everything closes up, including gas stations, & everyone goes to bed, & the only ones who stay up are bums who are pretty drunk or tough or both […] If anything goes wrong you’re just out of luck & no one understands it if a girl is out alone after dark – believe it or not!”  In another letter she reports: “Several times when I’ve had the car parked alongside the road, taking pix nearby, a cop or state trooper has come up, watched me, examined the camera and searched thru the car, and questioned and looked at all my identification, etc. I’ve had to visit more than one sheriff’s office … and go through the same routine, but the worst of it is the time they consume … They haven’t anything else to do and they don’t feel like working anyway—it’s too hot, and they think you’re crazy anyhow.” 
Because the act of looking is considered dangerous, but apparently only so when practiced by men.
Possibly because of this ongoing negotiation of her gender identity, this continuous questioning of her legitimacy as a photographer and of her independence in the field, Post Wolcott developed a very keen and subtle eye, maybe more so than the other photographers associated with the FSA project. Post Wolcott seemed to have in particular grasped the sheer potency of looking, the three-way conversation that sometimes takes place when a photographer catches some in the act of looking at others. In this specific image she demonstrates that the gaze can be a very powerful tool of menace, one of violence and violation, especially when the act of looking is deferred to the future and when the victims of the gaze are yet to enter the scene. The picture also shows though that the act of looking can be turned on its head and be used to her advantage. Whereas the miners are engaged in the sole act of looking out for ‘the enemy’ and only distractedly glance at her, she intently studies them through her viewfinder and records them for posterity. Maybe because she is a woman, she is not considered much of a threat, she does not form any real danger, she is not a member of the ‘other side’ in any case. As a result she can almost sneak up on the striking miners unnoticed and record them at leisure.
Perhaps this is what links Road to Perdition to Post Wolcott’s photograph in my mind. Because the act of looking is considered dangerous, but apparently only so when practiced by men. Michael Jr. gets himself and his father in trouble, because he is the witness to a murder. The Godfather’s pack is permanently on the look out for Sullivan and Michael Jr. The only way father and son can escape the danger is by hiding in the shadows, by remaining unseen. When the final reckoning takes place, the mobsters are out in the open, visible to any man who chooses to look, naked to Sullivan’s eye. It is significant that Sullivan remains invisible during the shootout, that by doing so he emasculates his former associates, because they cannot distinguish the threat. Post Wolcott on the other hand is seen and casually dismissed, which allows her to unabashedly look at the striking miners in broad daylight and shoot them.
To definitively hammer the message home of the dangers of being seen by other men, Sullivan meets his inevitable end by getting shot by a hired assassin doubling as a crime scene photographer. The gaze becomes doubly, immediately and reciprocally violent in the film, whereas in the picture the dangers associated with the act of looking are displaced from one person onto the next, and potentially dispersed over time.
 In 1920 a shootout took place in Matewan, Mingo County, West Virginia, between local coal miners and operatives from the Baldwin – Felts Detective Agency, hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company to stop the miners from unionising. The Battle of Blair Mountain took place in 1921. Estimates vary, but 10,000 to 13,000 miners tried to march to Mingo County and Logan County, West Virginia, in an attempt to forcefully unionise the minefields and liberate imprisoned fellow miners. Blair Mountain and approximately 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers, organised by anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin, stood in their path. A five-day battle ensued, which only ended after intervention by federal troops. The Battle of Blair Mountain was a direct consequence of the events in Matewan in 1920, and is considered the largest armed uprising in the US to date since the Civil War.
 Paul Hendrickson, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott (New York: Knopf, 1992), 135.
 Hendrickson, Looking for the Light, 135-136.
 Hendrickson, Looking for the Light, 148.
 Letters to Roy Stryker from MPW, http://people.virginia.edu/~ds8s/mpw/rs.html, accessed 29 October 2017.