by Gerald Boerner
Note: Today’s Thought for the Day gives an overview of several of the photographers that we have featured over the past week or so. They helped document the plight of the poor during the Great Depression of the 1930 and worked for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The photos from this project are now in the public domain at the Smithsonian, but, perhaps more importantly, it helped to put photography into the mainstream of this nation. We should be thankful to these photographers who captured the mood of the country and foreshadowed the entire field of photojournalism.
“[…photographer needs] rectangular eyeballs and horse blinders to frame and focus the vision of what is seen.” — Roy Stryker, in Professional photographer’s survival guide by Charles E. Rotkin
Bonus: Photographer’s Thought for the Day… “…they [the photographers of the FSA] were all interested in the plight of human beings and in the programs of the New Deal, and the remedial programs that the New Deal and the FSA were trying to do, I think that all these people had a lot of vigor and energy and were sensitive to their surroundings.”
— Marion Post, Photographer
Bonus: Photographer’s Thought for the Day… “Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.”
— Walker Evans, Photographer
Bonus: Photographer’s Thought for the Day… “I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake.”
— Gordon Parks, Photographer
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was an effort during the Depression to combat American rural poverty, initially this agency was created as the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935 as part of the New Deal in the United States.
The FSA stressed "rural rehabilitation" efforts to improve the lifestyle of sharecroppers, tenants, and very poor landowning farmers, and a program to purchase submarginal land owned by poor farmers and resettle them in group farms on land more suitable for efficient farming. Critics, including the Farm Bureau strongly opposed the FSA as an experiment in collectivizing agriculture — that is, in bringing farmers together to work on large government-owned farms using modern techniques under the supervision of experts. The program failed because the farmers wanted ownership; after the Conservative coalition took control of Congress it transformed the FSA into a program to help poor farmers buy land, and continues in operation in the 21st century as the Farmers Home Administration.
One of the activities performed by the RA and FSA was the buying out of small farms that were not economically viable, and the setting up of 34 subsistence homestead communities, in which groups of farmers would live together under the guidance of government experts and work a common area. They were not allowed to purchase their farms for fear that they would fall back into inefficient practices not guided by RA and FSA experts.
The Dust Bowl in the Great Plains displaced thousands of tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and laborers, many of whom (known as "Okies" or "Arkies") moved on to California. The FSA operated camps for them, as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.
The RA and FSA are well known for the influence of their photography program, 1935-1944. Photographers and writers were hired to report and document the plight of the poor farmer. The Information Division of the FSA was responsible for providing educational materials and press information to the public. Under Roy Stryker, the Information Division of the FSA adopted a goal of "introducing America to Americans." Many of the most famous Depression-era photographers were fostered by the FSA project. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Gordon Parks were three of the most famous FSA alumni. The FSA was also cited in Gordon Parks’ autobiographical novel, "A Choice of Weapons".
Together with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (not a government project) and documentary prose (e.g. Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), the FSA photography project is most responsible for creating the image of the Depression in the USA. Many of the images appeared in popular magazines. The photographers were under instruction from Washington as to what overall impression the New Deal wanted to give out. Stryker’s agenda focused on his faith in social engineering, the poor conditions among cotton tenant farmers, and the very poor conditions among migrant farm workers; above all he was committed to social reform through New Deal intervention in people’s lives. Stryker demanded photographs that "related people to the land and vice versa" because these photographs reinforced the RA’s position that poverty could be controlled by "changing land practices." Though Stryker did not dictate to his photographers how they should compose the shots, he did send them lists of desirable themes, e.g., "church," "court day," "barns." Stryker sought photographs of migratory workers that would tell a story about how they lived day-to-day. He asked Dorothea Lange to emphasize cooking, sleeping, praying and socializing. RA-FSA made 250,000 images of rural poverty. Fewer than half of those images survive and are housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. The Library has now placed all 164,000 developed negatives online. From these some 77,000 different finished photographic prints were originally made for the press, plus 644 color images from 1600 negatives.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was a groundbreaking American photographer, musician, poet, novelist, journalist, activist and film director. He is best remembered for his photo essays for Life magazine and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft. Parks had been inspired to create the picture after encountering repeated racism in restaurants and shops, following his arrival in Washington, D.C.. Upon viewing it, Stryker said that it was an indictment of America, and could get all of his photographers fired; he urged Parks to keep working with Watson, however, leading to a series of photos of her daily life.
Walker Evans was an American photographer best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the effects of the Great Depression. Much of Evans’ work from the FSA period uses the large-format, 8×10-inch camera. He said that his goal as a photographer was to make pictures that are "literate, authoritative, transcendent". Many of his works are in the permanent collections of museums, and have been the subject of retrospectives at such institutions as The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dorothea Lange was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange’s photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography. From 1935 to 1939, Lange’s work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten — particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers — to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant images became icons of the era.
Marion Post (later Marion Post Wolcott) was a noted photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression documenting poverty and deprivation. She was born in New Jersey. Her parents split up and she was sent to boarding school, spending time at home with her mother in Greenwich Village when not at school. Here she met many artists and musicians and became interested in dance. Her photographs for the FSA often explore the political aspects of poverty and deprivation. They also often find humor in the situations she encountered. Her work is some of the finest in the extensive archive.
Jack Delano was an American photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and a composer noted for his use of Puerto Rican folk material. Before working at the FSA, Delano had done his own processing and developing but he didn’t have to do either of that at the FSA. Other photographers working for the FSA include Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks. In 1943 FSA was eliminated as "budget waste" and subsumed into the Office of War Information (OWI). He travelled to Puerto Rico in 1941 as a part of the FSA project. This trip had such a profound influence on him that he settled there permanently in 1946.
Sheldon Dick was an American publisher, literary agent, photographer, and filmmaker. He was a member of a wealthy and well-connected industrialist family, and was able to support himself while funding a series of literary and artistic endeavors. He published a book by poet Edgar Lee Masters, and made a documentary about mining that has been of interest to scholars. Dick is best known for the photographs he took on behalf of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, and for the violent circumstances of his death. Dick’s wealth allowed him to provide his own funding, and gave him an independence the other photographers lacked. Stryker attempted to provide some guidance for the kind of photographs he was looking for, writing to Dick, "It is terribly important that you in some way try to show the town against this background of waste piles and coal tipples. In other words, it is a coal town and your pictures must tell it."
Russell Lee was an American photographer and photojournalist. Lee had trained as a chemical engineer, and in the fall of 1936 became a member of the team of photographers assembled under Roy Stryker for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration documentation project. Lee is responsible for some of the iconic images produced by the FSA, including photographic studies of San Augustine, Texas in 1939, and Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940. After the FSA was defunded in 1943, and after his own service in World War II, Lee continued to work under Stryker, producing public relations photographs for Standard Oil of New Jersey. Some 80,000 of those photographs have been donated by Exxon Corporation to the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Arthur Rothstein was an American photographer. During the Depression Rothstein was invited by Roy Stryker to join the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration. Rothstein had been Stryker’s student at Columbia University in the early 1930s. In 1935, as a college senior, he prepared a set of copy photographs for a picture source book on American agriculture that Stryker was assembling. The book was never completed, but before the year was out, Stryker had hired Rothstein at the Resettlement Administration. The immediate incentive for his February 1937 assignment came from the interest generated by congressional consideration of farm tenant legislation sponsored in the Senate by John H. Bankhead, a moderate Democrat from Alabama with a strong interest in agriculture.
John F. Vachon was an American photographer. He worked as a filing clerk for the Farm Security Administration before Roy Stryker recruited him to join a small group of photographers. John Vachon’s first job at the Farm Security Administration carried the title "assistant messenger." He was twenty-one, and had come to Washington from his native Minnesota to attend The Catholic University of America.
Vachon had no intention of becoming a photographer when he took the position in 1936, but as his responsibilities increased for maintaining the FSA photographic file, his interest in photography grew. By 1937 Vachon had looked enough to want to make photographs himself, and with advice from Ben Shahn he tried out a Leica in and around Washington. His weekend photographs of "everything in the Potomac River valley" were clearly the work of a beginner, but Stryker lent him equipment and encouraged him to keep at it. Vachon received help as well from Walker Evans, who insisted that he master the view camera, and Arthur Rothstein, who took him along on a photographic assignment to the mountains of Virginia.
“The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative. By their fewness, and by the importance of the reader’s eye, this will be misunderstood by most of that minority which does not wholly ignore it. In the interests, however, of the history and future of photography, that risk seems irrelevant, and this flat statement necessary.”
— Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men : Three Tenant Families by James Agee, Walker Evans
[Biographical information is from the Wikipedia article on Farm Security Administration that can be found at:
Note: The above article was the basis of much of the information presented above, but the backgrounds of each of the photographers mentioned are accessible on their own pages from links on the above page. They are included here by reference…