Throwback Thursday: Fonville Winans' Depression-Era Louisiana

"Self Portrait-Swamp Lunch" © Fonville Winans

"When I was a young man I wanted to have an adventure, and since Africa was very far away, Louisiana served that purpose," an elderly Fonville Winans recalled to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times [1]. The photographer was born in the Midwest and his family settled in the Fort Worth, Texas area, so when the teenage Winans accompanied his father on an engineering project to Morgan City, Louisiana, he found the tropical environment of the bayous enchanting and alluring.

In 1932-1934 he and two friends poked a small sailboat, the Pintail, through the marshes, swamps, and barrier islands of coastal Louisiana, gaining experience with his camera in all types of conditions and filming in 16mm footage for a movie he envisioned would launch his career. 

Instead, after attending LSU, he found steady work capturing Louisiana's many forms of industry, from oystering to shrimp and rice harvesting to salt mining. His famous photograph of the Avery Island salt mines, "Salt Mine Ghosts," was taken during this period in 1939. He also took many photographs of popular politicians of the time, including Huey Long and Leander Perez. His camera was active whether he was on or off of official business, and he captured many domestic and rural scenes of rural Louisianans. 

"Salt Mine Ghosts" © Fonville Winans

"Seeding the Bed" © Fonville Winans

While this sort of documentary photography was going on all over the country for various purposes, Winans never saw himself as an artist, and that is probably the reason his work went unknown or anonymous when he set up his own commercial studio in Baton Rouge. It wasn't until over forty years later in the late 80s and early 90s that a reflective country began to seek out untapped resources of vintage life and images of lost authenticity that the work of his youth was discovered.

"Native Shrimpman" © Fonville Winans

"The Oysterman" © Fonville Winans

Suddenly, Winans, already successful as a commercial photographer, began selling his old work to collectors for thousands of dollars. He died in 1992 before the definitive anthology of his photography, Fonville Winans' Louisiana: Politics, People, Places, was published.

This weekend a new exhibition of Winans' photography, including sepia-toned prints embellished with oil paints by his wife Helen, begins at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Author Cyril Vetter will be at the opening reception May 17th to sign copies of Fonville Winans' Louisiana.




[1] McKenna, Kristine. "Southern Exposures." Los Angeles Times. December 2, 1990.