Thursday, November 18, 2010

Half a Tank: I HAD to share this ...

Yolanda Vazquez walks with her six-year-old son Jonathan down the hallway of the
Hilda M. Barg Homeless Prevention Center. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

This is the kind of link I would normally share on my tumbleblog. Especially since it's a series that ended over a year ago. But I just randomly happened across it. I couldn't believe I missed it in the first place. I haven't even had a chance to get into it and experience it for myself. But I decided to share it right away. It's the kind of work I get excited about because it combines topics and interests I've always been drawn to.

The subject of this post is a series, done in the form of a blog, by two Washington Post staffers, writer Theresa Vargas and photographer Michael Williamson. The series, called Half a Tank: Along Recession Road, was a 5-month long quest to find photographs and stories about the lives of ordinary folks and how the current economic recession has altered their lives. The project ended in October of 2009, but it's still available for viewing.

I can't say I'm familiar with Ms. Vargas' work, but I'm acutely aware of Williamson's. I seem to always be just a step behind Michael Williamson. Or he behind me. He briefly left the newspaper business to teach photojournalism at Western Kentucky University – my Alma Mater – just a couple of years after I left. And he joined the staff at the Washington Post when I was still working in that metro area – shortly before I moved to Georgia.

I've never met the man but I've always been strongly drawn to his work, which can have a sort of dark, Americana feel to it. A feel that harkens back to the days when Life magazine was the chief window to the world. And, like myself, the guy has an affinity for the road. Getting out of the nation's megopolis, off the interstates. That's where you'll find America and its history. Williamson has driven countless miles. Hopped trains with hobos. He's probably hoofed more miles than many of us have driven.

I'm also keen on history and the power of photography to document and preserve visual records of people and eras for all time. Williamson has literally traveled in the footsteps of iconic photographer Walker Evans, who, with writer James Agee, produced the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which depicted the lives of sharecroppers in the South during the Great Depression. Fifty years later, working with writer Dale Maharidge, Williamson chronicled the descendants of those portrayed in Evans' work. The resulting book, And Their Children After Them, won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1990.

While following in Evans' tracks and sharing with him a fondness for photographing the details of cultures and places, I think, personally, Williamson's work often resembles, in both in style and intent, that of Robert Frank, who's momentous book The Americans was critically panned when first published. The pictures of both photographers are unsentimental in their blunt and sometimes brutal honesty in their depiction of America – especially the poor, the downtrodden, and the homeless. But they are pictures clearly made by the mind and soul of an artist. Evidence of the American Dream are everywhere in Williamson's work, but his images powerfully remind us, sometimes uncomfortably so, that there's still plenty of work to be done in this great democratic experiment of ours. While Robert Frank's view of the American Dream was that of an outsider due to his immigrant status, Williamson's is due to his upbringing.

It's natural that Williamson would be drawn to the road and to downtrodden subjects. He grew up in foster homes and orphanages in over 15 states.  His brings his own experiences to his work and gives these people a voice through his photographs. It's important and notable work. Photojournalism at its very best.

A self portrait Michael made in North Dakota.
Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Please make some time to view Half a Tank: Along Recession Road. One caveat, though. The blog reads from the end to the beginning as each blog post replaces the one before it. I wish the Post would re-format the piece so it is easier to experience it chronologically, as if we were traveling with the two journalists.

Still, it will be worth the effort. Maybe I'll finally meet Michael Williamson, one day. Until then, we're all privileged to experience his journeys and historic chronicles through his eyes.

Update (Nov. 19): Michael Williamson's latest project, From middle class to poverty, was just posted on the Washington Post website


  1. Hey Scott,

    I share your views on Michael--because I've worked with him for the past 30 years! We have a new book coming out that you should check out. It's called "Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression. You can see more on the Facebook page for it. Type in "Someplace Like America: the book." If you don't add the book part, you will land on a film project page. . . we are also involved with that.

    --Dale Maharidge

  2. There you go, folks! Follow on Facebook for updates on what is sure to be another classic and important in-depth chronicle about Americans just trying to navigate their way through life. Can't wait to see the finished product!

    Thanks, Dale, to you and Michael, for your continued work to give voice to people who desperately need one.

    And thanks for stopping in!

  3. The shout out is much appreciated! Wait 'til you see Michael's photos. There are three signatures of them, some 80 images. They are his best work, I feel. And thanks for "liking" our Facebook page. Stay tuned for new developments in the coming months. And keep up your good work--you are clearly a photographer who works with passion and soul.

    Dale Maharidge


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