Gretchen Van Tassel


Name Gretchen Van Tassel
Born 1918
Died January 11 2011
Birth Location New York, NY

Gretchen Van Tassel (1918–2011) was hired by the War Relocation Authority's "Reports Division" in Washington, D.C., where she worked from 1943 to 1946. Van Tassel was the office manager in charge of editing, filing, and distributing official WRA still and moving images. Because of her background as a photographer, she eventually also went out on shoots and supplemented the WRA Photographic Section's (WRAPS) photos on the eastern seaboard.[1]

Gretchen Van Tassel was born in New York City. Hailing from an old American family with Dutch roots, she had a comfortable upbringing. Perhaps in contrast to the practices of the day, her parents and a favorite aunt encouraged Van Tassel to make the most of her abilities.

After high school, Van Tassel studied at Bennington, an innovative, arts-oriented women's college. Majoring in art, Van Tassel studied photography and architecture at Bennington, and learned to both shoot and develop in the darkroom while she was an undergraduate.

Graduating in 1939, Van Tassel went to New York to work. First finding employment with a fashion photographer, she next worked for Mattie Edwards Hewitt who specializing in architectural photography, and then worked for a well-known photographer, Jeffrey Marmes.

When the U.S. entered the war, Van Tassel moved to Washington D.C., where she was employed for a time as a draftsperson at the Naval Research Laboratory there. When she heard about the WRA, however, Van Tassel was interested and applied for a job. She was hired by the Reports Division that among other things managed all of the official WRA images that were being produced by the WRA's Photographic Section in Denver, Colorado. Van Tassel began by keeping the photo files, which consisted of the original negatives of approved shots plus a print, in order. When media, civic organizations, or authors requested images, it was her responsibility to select and send them the size and number of required. She was also involved in the Reports Division's film projects, and the issuance of PR publications such as a RD pamphlet on Nisei soldiers in the U.S. Army.

As of 1943, resettlement became the WRA's main objective, and Van Tassel went out on assignment. Although she took some shots of the WRA camps, her main focus was on the Japanese Americans who had left camp and moved to the eastern seaboard, in part because she was closer to these sites, and it was more difficult for the WRAPS photographers based in Denver to come out to the east coast to shoot.

Van Tassel has a little over 200 images online at the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA) web site. Although her photos are largely portraiture of resettlers and discharged veterans, she also took a series of shots at Jerome and Rohwer, the easternmost of the ten WRA camps.

After the WRA closed in early 1946, Van Tassel continued to do photography for the Federal Housing Authority and the International Bank. When she married and eventually had children, Van Tassel retired and devoted herself to being a mother. Of interest is that one of her children, Alison Shaw, followed in her mother's footsteps and became a well-known American photographer working out of the Northeast.

Gretchen Van Tassel-Shaw passed away on January 11, 2011, at her home in Brunswick, Maine, just a few weeks short of her 93rd birthday.

Authored by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, UCLA

For More Information

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo, with Kenichiro Shimada. Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens: Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA's Photographic Section, 1943–1945. Photographs by Hikaru Carl Iwasaki. Foreword by Norman Y. Mineta. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2009.

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives (JARDA). http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/jarda/.

Footnotes

  1. Data for this entry were taken from Gretchen Van Tassel's official WRA employment records. I would also like to acknowledge Alison Shaw, her daughter, who videotaped an extended interview with Gretchen Van Tassel-Shaw about her work with the WRA "Reports Office" in Washington D.C., which I have also drawn from here.