Marjory Collins showed us an intimate Penn Station

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Penn Station main concourse, New York, 1942. Marjory Collins; Library of Congress
New York City’s long-lost Penn Station is almost always described in grandiose terms, and for good reason. Its main entrance on Seventh Avenue was an imposing wall of Doric columns, comparable to anything in Europe. Inside, the vaulted, coffered waiting room was flanked by six-story Corinthian columns, the station’s concourse topped by soaring arches of glass and steel.

Descriptions never fail to mention the station’s architect, Charles McKim of the blue-chip firm McKim, Mead & White, and his creation’s celebrated homage to the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla. 

Everything about the place seemed gargantuan, which was just the way the Pennsylvania Railroad — itself the most gargantuan of carriers — wanted it. The idea was to instill awe as much as it was to get you to your train. Inside cavernous Penn Station, the PRR put you in your place. 

The novelist Thomas Wolfe evoked that reality in “You Can’t Go Home Again,” in a passage generally accepted as applying to Penn Station. “Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time,” Wolfe wrote, “and . . . there was a superb fitness in the fact that the one which held it better than all others should be a railroad station.”

Children at the Union News stand. Marjory Collins; Library of Congress
But we shouldn’t forget that, every single day, Penn Station had uncountable intimate moments, as tens of thousands of people descended onto its spacious concourse. I was reminded of that last week when I returned to the Classic Trainslibrary’s Penn Station file, where I encountered some remarkable images by a remarkable woman.

Although her name is likely unfamiliar to a railroad audience, Marjory Collins was, for a time, a formidable presence among a group of pioneers who changed the trajectory of American photography. She was already an established documentary photographer when, in 1942, she was invited to join a team assembled by the Office of War Information to record everyday life on the home front. 

The group was organized by Roy Stryker, an economist and noted photographer who had earlier formed the team that made legendary Depression-era pictures for the Farm Services Administration. Collins shared her government credentials with such illustrious colleagues as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, and Gordon Parks. That she belonged in such company says something about the depth of her work.

Passengers occupy a waiting-room bench. Marjory Collins; Library of Congress
That is obvious if you spend some time with Collins’ portfolio at the Library of Congress. Her photographs number in the hundreds, capturing myriad aspects of life during wartime. Her assignments included depicting the joys and struggles of families living in the federally created New Deal town of Greenbelt, Md., as well as the momentary pleasures of an Italian bar on Mulberry Street in New York. Her camera recorded a salvage campaign in a D.C. neighborhood, the chaos of Christmas at Macy’s department store, ink-stained newspapermen in tiny Lititz, Pa., and couples boating in Central Park. 

Then there were her Penn Station images, some of which are presented here. What a refreshing alternative to endless photographs of towering limestone arches, GG1 locomotives, and Broadway Limited tailsigns. For Marjory Collins, what mattered was what happened down on the concourse floor, where tidal waves of people were obligated to contend one on one with the PRR (and, to be sure, the Long Island Rail Road).

Soldiers and sailors at the east gates. Marjory Collins; Library of Congress
Just look at the vivid moments Collins captured: A woman converses with a young soldier out in the open amid a crowd of other passengers. Two small children take a break atop their mother’s suitcase beside The Union News Company. Exhausted women rest on a long waiting-room bench. A young mother bends to change a diaper as an elegant redcap looks away. A gaggle of soldiers and sailors gathers at the east gates, awaiting trains that will take them to their fates. 

Collins was not interested in making sanitized propaganda — she was known for striving to show a multi-ethnic America long before it was generally accepted — and Penn Station’s throngs presented her with a subject-rich environment. You can almost sense her passion in trying to get it all on black-and-white film. In a 2009 essay, Library of Congress photography curator Beverly W. Brannon quoted Collins as saying, “Documenting the lives of Americans, discoveringmy own country for the first time, I was freed of the whims of publicity men wanting posed leg art.”

Young mother changes a diaper. Marjory Collins; Library of Congress
For more on Collins’ life, I highly recommend Brannon’s brief biography of the photographer on the Library of Congress website. From there, you can follow links to a large archive of Collins’ images, covering all aspects of the work she did for the Office of War Information. 

After a postwar life that included notable work in the arenas of civil rights and women’s rights and magazine publishing, Marjory Collins died in 1985 at the much-too-young age of 73. That means she was around in 1964 to witness the shameful fate of Penn Station’s head house, demolished to make way for that temple of hype, Madison Square Garden.

It’s impossible to know what she thought of this, or whether she cared. By 1985 she was living in San Francisco. But we can be grateful for those few days in the summer of 1942 when she showed us what Penn Station was all about. 

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