John Vachon was born in 1914, in Minnesota. After graduation from St. Thomas College in the 1930s, he worked in the Farm Security Administration as a filing clerk. While maintaining the photo files there, his interest in photography grew, and he joined a group of photographers—including Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange—who were recruited by Roy Stryker to document the conditions of the rural poor in America. From 1942 to 1943, Vachon also worked in the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C. In 1945, Vachon served in the United States Army. Starting in 1946, he photographed Poland for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Shortly after, he was a staff photographer for Life magazine, and, for close to 25 years, at Look, until that publication folded in 1971. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973. Vachon died in 1974.
After serving in the United States Army in 1945, self-taught photographer John Vachon was sent to Poland to document the aftermath of World War II. His earlier work for the Farm Security Administration serving as a calling card, Vachon was dispatched by the Visual Information Office of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to cover its relief efforts. Poland had been particularly affected by the war, with cities destroyed and a large segment of its population either decimated or forced into exile. Vachon’s vast body of work created there serves as a compassionate look at a devastated country recovering from years of destruction and Nazi occupation.
The photographs in this slideshow represent a small selection of images included in Vachon’s posthumous Moving Walls exhibit. For more on this body of work, see Poland, 1946: The Photographs and Letters of John Vachon (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995) or visit the United Nations Archives and Records Management Section, which houses the full archive of Vachon’s photographs from Poland that he created under the auspices of the UNRRA.