John Vachon for LOOK Magazine Project Wraps Up

Tuesday, October 25, 2022 by Melissa Silvestri

The Museum finished a multi-year project that processed, cataloged, and digitized its John Vachon for LOOK magazine photography collection. As a Cataloger at the Museum, I have been working on adding subject metadata to records for this project. John Vachon (1914-1975) was a staff photographer for LOOK Magazine from 1947 to 1972, covering a variety of subjects with a lot of natural skill for candid, interesting images, from teenagers at Coney Island to professional boxers and baseball players, to the 1950s pop music act The Billy Williams Quartet.

Photograph of a woman riding a bike in the street in front of a truck.
John Vachon (1914-1975) for Look magazine. Girl Who Rides to Work. 1958. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc, 1959. X2011.4.7878-58.110

I’ve enjoyed doing research to uncover more background information on the photographs, or to put them into a better context. The Billy Williams Quartet were a 1950s doo-wop/pop group led by their namesake, a longtime musician who was already well into his forties when he fronted the group, which performed on the TV show Your Show of Shows, hosted by Sid Caesar. The group included members Eugene Dixon, Claude Riddick, and John Ball. They are best remembered for their 1957 hit “I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.” Not much could be found about the other members, as it can be when artists fall into general obscurity decades after their success. The more fun photographs in the collection are of them posing with fencing swords at a martial arts studio, likely in New York City, and waiting in between takes in a television studio, caught between looking bored and ready to film.

Black and white photo of four men holding sabers standing in a line.
John Vachon (1914-1975) for Look magazine. Billy Williams--Quartet. 1952. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc, 1959. X2011.4.1127-52.3

The Coney Island images, in both photographing families on the boardwalk and teenagers hanging out there, have been great to see slices of normal life at Coney Island in Brooklyn, seeing a diverse range of families and people just having concessions, walking the boardwalk, going on rides, and enjoying a day by the sea. It’s just average and normal to see, and I’m happy that Vachon photographed this for posterity as just a regular day for people visiting Coney Island.

Black & white photograph of a group of people standing outside. Two on the lower left, facing the camera, are staring at the sky.
John Vachon (1914-1975) for Look magazine. Coney Island. 1953. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc, 1959. X2011.4.2374-53.864

Additionally, with the Coney Island images were photographs of Brooklyn teenagers seen as juvenile delinquents, with the social worker/future politician Vincent Riccio working with them and visiting them. The photographs depict the teens hanging out at the boardwalk, on street corners, in their family apartments, and meeting with Riccio for seemingly round table talks. I found these interesting because I had wondered who these teens are, and, like the members of the Billy Williams Quartet, many of their histories would be lost to time, save for their records still being in a government filing cabinet somewhere.

Black & white photograph of a group of four people—three women and one man with his arm around one of the women—sitting on a blanket at the beach. A pier is in the far background.
John Vachon (1914-1975) for Look magazine. Juvenile Delinquency--Youth Board, Vincent Riccio. 1955. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc, 1959. X2011.4.6021-55.130

And finally, I’ve enjoyed doing research on the sports images, with the folders that have been focused on the 1956 New York Giants, the 1955 boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore, and Roger Maris of the 1960 New York Yankees in games with the Boston Red Sox. I liked being able to look up baseball reference sites to match names to faces for the team lineups, seeing the friendship between Willie Mayes and actress Laraine Day (who was then married to the Giants manager Leo Durocher), and seeing the parallel lives of Marciano and Moore as star boxers training, hanging out in their off time (Marciano with his coaches, Moore with children admiring him), and preparing for their match, which Marciano won.

Black & white photograph of an African American man in a Giants baseball uniform and hat stands next to a women in a nice dress and jewelry. A stadium is behind them, out of focus.
John Vachon (1914-1975) for Look magazine. Baseball--Leo Durocher. 1955. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc, 1959. X2011.4.3936-55.52

Vachon’s images capture a lot of candid moments of everyday life, be it with famous figures or regular people, and the large amount of images taken over a short period of time has been interesting to study and research to add more context to, as well as just learning about small parts of history at a time with this collection.

Focusing the Lens: Creating Online Public Access to the Work of John Vachon in the LOOK Magazine Collection has made available approximately 10,850 photographs from 55 of Vachon's LOOK magazine assignments. This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant MA-30-18-0153-18.

By Melissa Silvestri, Cataloger

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