When it comes to paying a lasting tribute to veterans, few people can match the work of Josephine Herrick.
Herrick was a professional photographer in the 1930s and 40s with a successful studio in New York City when the United States went to war in 1941. She organized a group of 35 fellow-photographers to take pictures of soldiers who passed through New York; these snapshots, more than 900 in all, were then sent back to the soldier’s family with a hand-written note to help maintain the connections as the soldiers and their families faced the difficulties of separation and uncertainty.
It was a small act of kindness that elicited many expressions of gratitude from the soldiers and their families.
Herrick then spent a good part of her war photographing the part of the Manhattan Project, the effort to make the atomic bomb, that took place in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But she did not forget about the soldiers
Once the soldiers were engaged in combat, casualties returned to the U.S., and Dr. Howard Rusk, a rehabilitation pioneer, invited Herrick to the army hospitals to photograph the veterans. He had an idea that went beyond just the picture-taking, however. He believed that teaching the wounded veterans photography could be a therapeutic rehabilitation tool.
Herrick bought into the idea, and so did the War Department.
Portable darkrooms were set up at veterans hospitals around the country, and volunteers were recruited as teachers. Veterans everywhere got the chance to learn photography. The program morphed into the War Service Photography and after that to the Volunteer Service Photographers. Herrick became its executive director and was determined to keep the program going after the war.
The therapeutic value of photography was so well established that requests came to the VSP to start programs for the terminally ill and physically and mentally challenged. Herrick spent nearly three decades after the war as executive director of the VSP as it expanded into all sorts of areas where learning photography would be helpful.
Herrick died in 1972. She received a very short obituary notice in the New York Times; she never married and left no immediate heirs. What she left, however, was a massive legacy for photography and for veterans that continues today. Check out the Josephine Herrick Project website.
Additional information on Josephine Herrick can be found here.