The Great Depression: Photography 1935-1944

Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

Introduction

From its humble origins in France in the 1830s photography became one of the most compelling means of illustrating the impacts of the Great Depression on the United States. Documentary photography reached a high point in the United States in the 1930s during the Great Depression. No longer working in the studio, photographers went into the field to capture images of common people. The work of federal agency photographers coincided with growing interest in photojournalism and publication of popular magazines such as Life and Look.

A few pioneers—Matthew Brady, John Hilliers, Adam Clark Vroman, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Paul Strand—had engaged in photo-documentary projects between 1860 and 1920. What was special about the 1930s was that the federal government funded the photography of the Resettlement Administration (RA), Farm Security Administration (FSA), and the Office of War Information. These projects produced tens of thousands of images of everyday American life and, as never before, illustrated the homes, labor, dress, and conditions faced by millions suffering through the Great Depression.

The federal photos of the 1930s were often simple, stark, and powerful. Taken in black and white and by photographers with superb abilities to frame and compose images, the photographs spoke louder than words. The photos, appearing in newspapers, magazines, and special exhibits, became a trove of images that helped a nation try to make sense out of the new social welfare programs. With the passage of time, they became a national database about this time in history and brought vivid visual documentation to later generations.

Issue Summary

President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, a collection of diverse economic and social programs designed to bring relief from the Great Depression, to the American public in the spring of 1933. A key part of the New Deal was to provide economic aid to farmers. Two agencies created to help them were the Resettlement Administration (RA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The photography sponsored by these two New Deal federal organizations and taken during the 1930s would ultimately become a national treasure. Tens of thousands of images documented, for the first time in 140 years of the nation’s history, the life, labor, and sorrows of everyday citizens. The federal photographers took photographs that made the sad situation of the rural poor visible to urban dwellers.

Few, if any, photographers had ever focused their lenses on black American cotton pickers, poor white sharecroppers, coal miners in Appalachia, flood victims along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Okies and Arkies harvesting agricultural crops in California, or historic houses, grist mills, factories, bridges, and tunnels. From Maine to Washington and even to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the federal project photographers of the 1930s captured America close-up. Their photographs showed everyday American life in sorrow, achievement, and despair. They documented county fairs, ditch diggers, multi-generational families, and the frightening scenes of the Dust Bowl. They captured images of the ravages of floods and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. These images, when publicized, helped justify New Deal projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Grazing Service.

The RA and FSA projects also became an important nurturing ground for a generation of remarkable photojournalists and photo artists. Some photographers, like Walker Evans and Minor White, with preferences for the arts, stayed only briefly with the federal appointments. Others, like Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee, established their careers and went on to other documentary projects. For many Americans the documentary projects of these talented federal photographers lifted photography to the status of an art form.

The photo documentary projects of 1935-1942 were only part of a major commitment of the federal government to the cultural resources of the United States during the Great Depression. Photography was also part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts and Federal Writers’ projects. Never before had the federal government committed so much energy and resources to the arts, and, in this instance, to photography.

The photographs of the RA and FSA fed the rise of photojournalism and contributed to the success of magazines such asLife and Look. Americans gained a fuller picture of themselves because of the documentary photography of the 1930s. They also became acquainted with simple, direct, even cold and austere photographs that communicated as powerfully and effectively as any written account.

New Deal Agencies and Documentary Photography

In 1935 Congress created the Resettlement Administration (RA) with Rexford Guy Tugwell, a professor of economics at Columbia University and a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (served 1933-1945) “brain trust,” (a close advisory group) as the head of the new office. The RA was originally established to help the rural poor who were overlooked by the major New Deal farm agency, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The RA was to grant low-cost loans and assistance to sharecroppers and impoverished farmers, construct model communities for resettlement of migrant laborers and displaced farmers, assist in clean up of polluted rivers and flood control, reclaim eroded land, and build temporary camps for displaced farmers and farm workers. The RA was the major New Deal agency to move farmers off sub-marginal land and convert that land to non-agricultural uses. Displaced farmers were to be relocated on productive soil and have arrangements available where they could eventually buy the land.

Tugwell realized that to carry out its charges in the face of conservative public criticism the RA would have to rally public support for its projects. Tugwell knew the general public held little awareness for the problems of America’s neediest, for example the tenant farmers. So Tugwell established the Historical Section in the RA’s Division of Information. He charged it with photographing then publishing a portrayal of the crisis of poverty, despair, and conditions of the land itself. At the heart of his original goal was a propaganda effort to sensitize the public to the needs of numerous portions of the American population. At the time information made available to the public was most often collected and distributed in reports full of facts and figures. Instead Tugwell wanted faces and places pictured for all to see, without the distraction of other data.

The role of the Historical Section was to secure documentation of social and land conditions through photographs, hence the term “photodocumentary.” Much of the effort of the Historical Section thus focused on rural, impoverished parts of the country. Tugwell named Roy E. Stryker, his former student and teaching colleague at Columbia University, to administer the Historical Section.

Although not a photographer, Roy Stryker grasped the value of documentary still photographs, both to illustrate to Americans the conditions that confronted the RA as well as to show how the projects of the New Deal responded to wretched conditions and human need. Stryker was ideally qualified for his pioneering assignment due to his temperament, editorial experience with photographs as sociological tools, and deeply sympathetic knowledge and understanding of the rural life. Possessing almost a missionary zeal, Stryker set out to capture all aspects of American life.

The visual history Stryker’s photographers captured portrayed fear, sadness, and desperation, but also determination that not even the Great Depression could kill. Because of the quality of photographers hired and because Stryker sent them to regions such as the Great Plains, West, and South—areas not yet covered by the major news organizations—the photographs were widely published. The photos were published in newspapers nationally as well as influential magazines including Life, Look, and Survey Graphic. During the first two years of their work the photographers felt almost an emergency-like need to tell the tale of the nation’s rural problems and to make the rest of the nation understand. By 1937 and thereafter they would be able to tell more positive sides of the story of American life.

Although hard to gauge, perhaps partly because of the early photographs taken by Stryker’s people, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act became law on July 22, 1937. After President Roosevelt signed the measure, he established the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to carry out its provisions of aiding tenant farmers with rehabilitation loans and conservation programs on sub-marginal lands. The FSA was within the large and impersonal U.S. Department of Agriculture. The previously autonomous Resettlement Administration was absorbed into the FSA and underwent a major change. Rexford Tugwell, always a protector of Stryker’s program, resigned as administrator but Stryker’s watchdog nature prevailed, although his photographers had to come and go depending on available funds.

Field Assignment

Roy Stryker, between the years of 1935 and 1941, had at any one time, two to six photographers to send into the field on assignment. Before sending anyone out Stryker meticulously reviewed his or her assignment. He required each photographer to read about and research his or her assigned area. For example, Carl Mydans reported before an assignment of photographing cotton fields in the South that, not only did he research the area, but Stryker also followed with instruction on the history of cotton production. Stryker had an encyclopedic knowledge of socioeconomic forces at work in various regions and he also loved to teach and did so with great enthusiasm.

For each assignment Stryker always outlined the types of pictures to be taken. For example, on a small town assignment the outline might read: General notes for pictures needed for files: Small towns: Stores—outside views; inside views; goods on shelves; people buying; displays; people coming out of stores; cars, horses, buggies.

He called the outlines “shooting scripts.” Sometimes they were more detailed, sometimes more vague and the photographer could then elaborate in his or her own unique way. Stryker asked his people to capture the “significant detail.” A charismatic, persuasive, energetic man, Stryker would always review the entire scope of the goals of the assignment immediately before a photographer’s departure. Reportedly, both Stryker and his photographers enjoyed the enthusiastic sessions, which more resembled locker room pep talks.

Assignments were frequently for extended time periods generally six to nine months. Photographers sent film back to Stryker in Washington, DC, where it was developed. He took the prints home at night, studied them, and continuously gave feedback through phone calls or mail. At the end of the assignment, Stryker and the photographer would assess the experience during lengthy sessions.

Stryker was an “enabler,” that is, he not only provided educational and psychological support but the cameras and money to travel. He cleared bureaucratic red tape and guarded his artistic photographers from Congress who constantly tried to cut or curtail the program.

Although Stryker specified the type of pictures he needed from an area, he also established in the early days the idea that there was no such thing as wasted film or time. Not only did photographers shoot specific types of photos, but they also had freedom to photograph anything and to shoot anywhere in the United States. They photographed anything that seemed interesting and vital: people, road signs, the weather, barber shops. John Collier, Jr., an FSA photographer, once said that his assignment was to photograph the smell of burning leaves and apple pie in New England in the fall. The dedicated, talented photographers of Stryker’s Historical Section seemed to understand the character of life and record it well. The photographs from the field produced a visual record unique in its breadth and quality.

The RA/FSA Photographers

The First Wave

Roy Stryker in the spring and summer of 1935, carefully considered the type of photographers he would need for these special photographic assignments. Stryker looked more for idealism wrapped up in talent than persons with established reputations—reputations that he feared would get in the way of the project. He recruited a remarkable pool of photographers for his Historical Section. The first person hired by Stryker was Arthur Rothstein, a former student of Stryker’s at Columbia University. At approximately that same time, July 1935, Stryker hired Dorothea Lange although he had never met her. Likewise Ben Shahn came to Stryker’s attention.

Rothstein progressed quickly as a photographer and was in the field within months. In the spring of 1936 he headed to Cimarron County in the Oklahoma Panhandle to one of the most wind-eroded areas in the country. Here he took a photograph that came to represent the devastation of the land within the Dust Bowl. The photograph, Dust Storm, Cimarron County, 1936, caught a farmer and his two small sons pressing against the wind to reach shelter in a shed, half buried in sand.

Rothstein headed north to Pennington County in the South Dakota Badlands, where he took another famous photograph, The Skull, which showed a cow’s skull on parched land, strongly hinting that the desert soon would claim the overgrazed land. Both photographs were widely published in newspapers. Within weeks a congressional committee went to the Badlands to investigate. Rothstein spent much of his assignment time in the Midwest. Like the others who joined him, he had a respect and understanding of situations he encountered.

Dorothea Lange, eventually the best known FSA photographer of all, had been documenting the condition of migrant workers in California for the California Division of Rural Rehabilitation when hired by Stryker. Being on the West Coast she did not meet Stryker personally for nine months. Lange worked primarily in the West, Southwest, and South and became known as the supreme humanist among the FSA photographers. Her photographs were moving visual statements full of compassion. In March 1936 she happened on a pea pickers camp in California’s Nipomo Valley were she photographed a desperate mother and her children. The photograph became known as the Migrant Mother, perhaps the most famous FSA photograph. The San Francisco News ran a story accompanied by two other Lange photographs about the camp on March 10, 1936. Relief authorities immediately sent supplies and food to the camp.

Ben Shahn was not technically part of the Historical Section, instead was with the Special Skills Division of the RA. An artist whose abilities in painting were widely recognized, Shahn had been introduced to photography in the early 1930s by photographer Walker Evans, with whom he shared a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. Although lacking technical ability, Shahn possessed an uncanny awareness of social justice that his photographs reflected. Shahn’s photographs made their way to the Historic Section. In that first year it was Shahn who convinced Stryker that the photographs could be used as propaganda to inspire social action. In the summer of 1938, the only time Shahn was actually on Stryker’s payroll, he traveled to central Ohio and took a wealth of documentary photographs all composed as if in a painting.

The Ranks Increase

Those joining with the Historical Section in the fall and winter of 1935 were Theo Jung, Walker Evans, and Carl Mydans. Paul Carter also joined the staff in late 1935, bringing with him an expansive technical knowledge of photographic equipment. He did not, however, possess the “eye” for photographing subjects. Stryker was saved from the embarrassment of firing him when he left to open a camera store. Jung had begun his photographic career strictly as an amateur but on the strength of his portfolio detailing conditions of the slums in Washington, DC, he was hired in September 1935.

Jung traveled to Garrett County, Maryland, Brown County, Indiana, and Jackson County, Ohio, on assignment. His main interest was people rather than their living conditions and his best work was with the elderly and children. Stryker criticized Jung for not taking enough photographs, for not knowing enough about his subject matter, and for not being totally proficient with his camera. Jung was let go in May 1936.

Carl Mydans, who had already been working on a book about suburban resettlement for the RA, was reassigned to the Historical Section when the book project folded. Mydans was a skilled and understanding photojournalist. His photographs of Washington, DC, Cincinnati, New Jersey, and Maryland were taken before he joined Stryker’s group, but were used to fill in gaps in those areas of the RA’s archives. Mydans took a long assignment throughout the South, learning of the struggles of the rural poor. He stayed with the Historical Section for less than a year before joining the staff of the new magazine Life in October 1936.

Walker Evans, a true artist with the camera, set the standard for perfection. Evans went directly from private practice into the RA and then into Stryker’s section. From the start friction existed between Stryker and Evans. Evans was totally unconcerned with telling stories with his camera or producing photographs for a particular purpose. He was completely unwilling to compromise his standards on any level. Evans took most of his photographs with an 8 by 10 view camera.

When Evans went out on assignment he would often disappear for months at a time and have no contact with Stryker, who preferred keeping in close contact with his photographers. Evans proved unmanageable for Stryker, who had to answer to the government bureaucracy. Nevertheless when he did send photographs back they were flawless and intellectually amazing.

Evans took a leave of absence from the Historical Section in 1936 to work on a project with author James Agee for Fortune. They settled into the life in Hale County, Alabama, where eventually Evans photographs and Agee’s words became an American classic of the Great Depression—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (see sidebar).

Evans and Stryker permanently parted ways in mid-1937. Evans, along with Ben Shahn, were the two most artistically influential photographers of the FSA photographers.

When Carl Mydans decided to move on from the government project to Life magazine in 1936, Russell Lee took his place. Lee was the perfect FSA photographer. Dedicated to publicizing the rough conditions faced by many Americans, he headed to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. He considered some of his best work a series of photographs on the problems faced by “cut-over” farmers. Where once there were lush pine forests, logging companies had cut everything in sight destroying the usability of the land. The land was then sold to unsuspecting farmers who could barely scratch out an existence.

Lee’s best-known work was in Pie Town, New Mexico, a town along U.S. 60, which he stumbled onto. The photographs of Pie Town documented a community of people working together to pull themselves out of the Depression. The Pie Town series appeared in the October 1941 issue of U.S. Camera, the first series of photographs by one FSA photographer to appear in a serious journal of photography. Lee would later moved with Stryker to the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942.

John Vachon, an unemployed graduate student in Washington, DC, in 1936, was delighted to be hired by Stryker as an “assistant messenger” to deliver papers between government buildings. Vachon advanced to junior file clerk and, inspired by the staff photographers, began to take an interest in photography. He progressed to junior file clerk “with a camera.”

Vachon explored the faces of Lange’s photographs, the perfection of Evans, and the insightfulness of Shahn. He began to photograph around Washington, DC, then made his way to the Midwest and, by 1940, he was an official junior photographer. Dorothea Lange described his uniqueness as sensitivity and the ability to get to the place where it “hurts a little.”

Wolcott, Delano, and Collier

The last three photographers to join the Historical Section were Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, and John Collier, Jr. All joined the group when Stryker’s program was well along and he knew just what directions to move in. Wolcott’s first assignment was in mining areas of West Virginia, and she later worked throughout the South. Her work covered a wide range of living conditions, contrasting the rich with the poor. She produced some of the finest photography of children in the FSA file.

Jack Delano joined the FSA photographers in 1940, when Arthur Rothstein left to work at Look magazine. Delano had worked for the Federal Arts Project documenting the living conditions of miners in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. With the Historical Section, Delano did an in-depth study of life in Greene County, Georgia. When he left Georgia he traveled up the coast covering migrant worker camps all the way to Maine. This trip produced some of his best work. In 1941 Stryker sent Delano on a short trip to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Delano, however, remained in Puerto Rico, all the while sending back photographs to Stryker.

John Collier, Jr., began his association with Stryker in the summer of 1941 and he would move with Stryker to the OWI in 1942, and later to Standard Oil. While with the Historical Section Collier contributed coverage of the Amish, Portuguese fishermen in Rhode Island, and Mexican Americans in Taos, New Mexico.

An Intimate Vision

From the start of the photography projects Stryker placed high value on the power of visual images. The photographs enlightened the American people and raised its social consciousness. Rather than intruders the photographers became friends and were able to interpret the lives of the unemployed, dispossessed, migrants, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers. The faces of the people and the nature and problems of the land wove together to tell the country a story. The photographs avoided the sensational and sentimental but presented a reality and feeling of truth. It became easier to understand the upheavals caused by economic and climatic disasters.

The FSA photographs became powerful tools in the passage of New Deal legislation. They successfully raised America’s empathy and the U.S. Congress funded programs at President Roosevelt’s request to help people who had lost the ability to help themselves. For example, the FSA loans to farmers under the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, between 1937 and 1947, totaled $293 million and went to 47,104 farmers. In the photographs the nation saw an expressive and realistic portrayal of America’s needy. Lange’s poverty stricken “migrant mother,” Rothstein’s Dust Bowl farmer with his sons fleeing for cover in an Oklahoma dust storm, and Evan’s photographs of Alabama sharecroppers all spoke volumes. The FSA photographs came to symbolize a tenacity and courage of people attempting to survive in the harsh years of the Great Depression.

The New Small Cameras

The young idealistic and highly talented FSA photographers adapted quickly to the use of new small camera techniques. Documentary photography was revolutionized with the introduction of small film cameras from Germany, such as the 35mm Leica and Contax plus the slightly larger Rolleiflex that Dorothea Lange used. The FSA was one of the first major projects to use the 35mm camera extensively.

Before these cameras the primary camera for documentary or press photography, was a large camera, the Speed Graphic. It required adjustments to be made after each exposure, resulting in considerable time for each photograph. The subject was almost always aware that a photograph was being taken and as a result photos with this camera often tended to be static and unnatural.

The new cameras could easily be fit into a pocket and carried most anywhere. They had faster lenses and larger film capacity that allowed a more natural and an unobtrusive progression of pictures to be taken. The 1930s faces of people finding their way through the Depression were candid and real, not posed, thanks to the new camera technology.

First International Photographic Exposition

In 1938 the American public first glimpsed Ron E. Stryker’s three-year-old project with the Historical Section. The most meaningful and moving part of the First International Photographic Exposition was a series of photographs of the faces and places of 1930s America. Held in New York City’s Grand Central Palace, approximately five hundred visitors were so moved by the images as to leave comments in the suggestion box. All but a few were positive and thought provoking.

The public response to the exhibit was overwhelmingly positive. They believed it was time that people in America saw this side of life in their nation. Grace M. Mayer, writing in a pamphlet The Bitter Years: 1935-1941 for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, recounts the following suggestion box notes: “These show that photography with a purpose may not necessarily be lacking in art or interest.” “It’s about time these conditions were eradicated—show more and people will understand more.” “The Awful Truth (Real Awful).” “Why the hell isn’t something done about it?” “Wonderful Pictures, but Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” (quoted in Edward Steichen’s The Bitter Years: 1935-1941, 1963, p. vi).

Works Progress Administration Photographic Projects

Other New Deal agencies also employed photographers and produced an important visual legacy from the 1930s. The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) were divisions of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Both were concerned with documenting nationally important buildings and engineering projects. In addition to measured drawings and textual research, each feature was carefully photographed. These images, most of them taken between 1935 and 1942 with large format cameras, are preserved in the Library of Congress. A number of the photographs are now digitized and available on the World Wide Web through the American Memory Project (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amhome.html).

The Works Progress Administration also employed photographers to work in other divisions. Photographers took thousands of images for the state guidebook series of the Federal Writer’s Project. In the WPA Art Division, photographers taught photography, mounted exhibits, and expanded understanding about photos as works of art. Additionally, the photographs of HABS, HAER, and the WPA proved highly useful in historic preservation programs to stabilize, restore, and interpret the nation’s cultural history following World War II (1939-1945).

Set Apart

In all, up to 70 percent of all federal agencies used pictures in one way or another during the 1930s. The work of the FSA Historical Section was set apart from the others by three factors. First, the FSA photographers were highly professional and talented, able to capture remarkable qualities. Secondly, even though their work was frequently used for propaganda for the agency, it was propaganda only in the most truthful way. It focused on real problems and hinted at real solutions. The photographers were also given artistic license to capture anything that seemed vital. Often those pictures had nothing to do with the agency. Third, the staff understood their work was to have a wide scope, a sense of history, for instance not just focusing on poor farmers but showing the relationship between rural poverty and improper use of the land. Other agencies had thousands of photographs of their agency in action, but the FSA’s photographs became a national historic treasure because of their sense of history.

Success of Photojournalism Magazines

Illustrated newspapers became popular in the mid-1800s, but printers had no way to reproduce photographs until development of the half-tone process in the 1880s. The etching of a photograph on a metal plate contributed rapidly to use of photographs in newspapers and magazines, both for stories and for advertising. The first important American photo magazine was Life, a publication conceived and financed by Henry Luce, founder of Time. By the mid-1930s Luce was convinced that pictures, as well as words, could tell a compelling story. He printed the first issue of Life in 1936, to enthusiastic acceptance.

The FSA photographers understood their role as stimulators of social reform. The photo magazines, however, were more interested in finding drama in everyday life than to plead any cause. The photographers for Life were young, aggressive, had news coverage experience, and prided themselves on the versatility to cover anything. Four photographers made upLife’s staff when it began publication: Margaret Bourke-White, Thomas McAvoy, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Peter Stackpole. Carl Mydans, FSA photographer, later joined the staff in 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White, while on the staff of Fortune, created some of the first photographic essays ever done in the United States. She completed a photographic story on life in Montana boomtowns that appeared in Life’s first issue. That issue’s cover showcased one of the Montana photographs.

Bourke-White collaborated with author Erskine Caldwell for a book about the Depression-weary South entitled You Have Seen their Faces (1937). Together they traveled across nine southern states explaining with word and photographs what they found. You Have Seen their Faces received prominent attention in the magazine. In her 20 years with Life Bourke-White published over one hundred photographic essays on wide ranging topics from the praying mantis’ life cycle to the Korean conflict.

Thomas McAvoy had spent 10 years as a newspaper photographer, then as a freelance photographer before coming toLife. Before joining Life Alfred Eisenstaedt, a German immigrant, produced dramatic photographs of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and Peter Stackpole had established himself as a freelance news photographer for Time magazine.

The term “photojournalism” was coined in 1938 to describe a story told primarily with pictures. The photojournalism magazines were considered editor-dominated because a photographer had to take many photographs on each assignment, then let an editor and an art director decide how those photographs would be used.

In 1938 Gardner Cowles created Look, a similar although less glamorous magazine than Life. Both magazines, in competition with each other, excelled at offering readers harsh scenes of the Great Depression as well as common interest stories. By the late 1930s the United States had several competing photojournalism magazines. These includedLife, Look, Focus, Click, and Pic.

Much of the popularity of photojournalism was due to the growing interest of Americans in keeping current with news events. The rapid spread of radio stations in the 1920s, the advent of newsreels, and the emergence of photojournalism, especially in magazine format, were all evidence of the literacy and interests of Americans. Many of the stories of the 1930s were about big events: construction of the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams in the Pacific Northwest, the projects of the Tennessee Valley authority, Dust Bowl conditions on the High Plains, poverty in the South, and military build-up in Germany and events leading to war by 1939 were all subjects that captured the public interest. The photojournalist was well positioned to meet this need.

Contributing Forces

Rise of Documentary Photography

In the 1880s Peter Henry Emerson, an English medical student and amateur photographer, began making images and writing about a revolutionary approach to producing photos. Emerson advised taking pictures outdoors, not in a studio. He proposed sharp focus on an object, subjects, or event and letting the rest of the background remain vague, even out of focus. He pressed for capturing people and scenes on film in their natural condition, not with props, artificial backdrops, or studio lighting.

Emerson became an advocate of pictorial photography and summed many of his views in Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889). Many of Emerson’s followers attempted to paint pictures with a camera, using a lens, film, and work in the darkroom to craft a work of art not unlike a watercolor or painting. Darkroom work on negatives was a hallmark of pictorial photography.

In 1899 Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer and founder of the Camera Club of New York, described scenic photography from an artist’s point of view. Some of his favorite pictures were of night scenes actually captured at low light conditions, sunsets, and approaching storms. In 1903 Stieglitz launched with a few friends what he called the Photo-Secession Movement. He believed in high aesthetic standards and the value of pictorial photography, but rejected manual manipulation of negatives or trying to turn a photo into a painting.

Pictorial photography was neither documentary nor motivated by social concern. Documentary photography refers to black-and-white or color photographic images that are realistic, factual, and useful as a historic document. Social reform through documentary photography used elements of both Emerson’s pictorial techniques and Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession ideas. Like the pictorialists, most social reform documentation work was carried on outside of a studio but, like the Photo-Secessionists, the documentary picture-taker did not manipulate the negative. The goal was to capture life realistically. Edward Sheriff Curtis, taking documentary photographs of American Indians between 1899 and 1930 for his 20 volume work, The North American Indian, leaned toward the pictorialist style.

Early practitioners of documentary photography included Matthew Brady, who took vivid scenes during the Civil War, and John Hilliers who photographed the Powell expedition’s 1871 voyage down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. Further evidence of this activity appeared in the 1890s in the photographic projects of Adam Clark Vroman. Owner of a California bookstore and camera store, Vroman mounted several field-based expeditions. In 1896 he photographed all of the Spanish missions in California; many were in ruins but that did not deter his activity. For five years he annually photographed the “Snake Dance,” “Flute Ceremony,” and other religious activities of the Hopi.

In 1899, as a member of an expedition funded by the Smithsonian Institution, Vroman photographed the Rio Grand pueblos. Vroman also took hundreds of photographs of Native Americans engaged in daily activities.

Few of Vroman’s photographs were published before his death in 1916; most of his work was to fulfill his own interests, but he had anticipated the power of the camera in documenting the human experience.

Jacob Riis (1848-1914), a Danish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1870, became the best-known documentary photographer by the end of the nineteenth century. Riis had several difficult years in the Northeast, working as a peddler, farm laborer, miner, and carpenter. He saw life from the bottom; he was often unemployed, hungry, and homeless.

Due to the fact that he was bright and learned English rapidly Riis, in 1877, found a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. He soon gained a reputation for his coverage of human disasters and slums. So moved was he by conditions in the urban tenements that he wrote How the Other Half Lives (1890), Children of the Poor (1892), and The Battle With the Slum(1902).

Riis carried his camera into the alleys, tenements, basements, and air shafts of New York’s slums. He ignited chemicals to produce flash pictures and published images of the horrible living conditions endured by tens of thousands in the United States. Riis also wrote vivid captions for his photographs. For example, one picture of a man sleeping in a basement on boards resting on top of two barrels was entitled “A Cave Dweller-Slept in this Cellar Four Years.” Riis used his writing and photography to press for social reforms.

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) began in 1901 to use photographs to aid his teaching at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. He took pictures of impoverished immigrants, child laborers in cotton mills in New England and North Carolina. Hine set a style for documentary photography until to his death in 1940. He had wanted to show both the things that needed correcting and the things that should be appreciated.

Paul Strand (1890-1976), one of Hine’s students, and a photographer who took his work to Alfred Stieglitz for criticism, worked with what some termed “brutally direct” subjects. Strand served as a cinematographer for director Paul Lorentz’s 1936 documentary about the Dust Bowl, “The Plow that Broke the Plains.”

Another photographer who gained international attention for his documentary photography was Eugene Atget (1857-1927), a Frenchman. Atget photographed Paris’s monuments, old churches, the rag pickers’ quarters, the fairs, shop windows, boulevard scenes, the farthest streets, the humblest homes, and the interiors of all types of houses. Atget also photographed carts, wagons, coaches, omnibuses, and automobiles as well as intricate features of architecture.

Once photographers got out of the studio and into society, they had the means to make their work socially relevant. Riis, Atget, and other photographers with a journalistic eye helped pave the way in the early twentieth century for the major photographic projects of the Great Depression.

Perspectives

Should the Government Be in the Business of Taking Photographs?

Public opinion concerning the FSA photography program ranged widely as public opinion in the United States commonly does. One segment, first glimpsing the conditions of their fellow Americans in 1936 through FSA photographs published nationally in newspapers, responded with shock. Some called for poverty to be eliminated immediately. They believed the government should act quickly just as it had in 1933 to save a banking system in crisis. The public grappled with trying to understand the wretched conditions and called for more photographs to be published. Others looked through an artistic eye and realized these photographs were art with a purpose. While some appreciated the quality of the photographs, however, they questioned if the government was responsible for taking care of everyone.

Some individuals showed hostility toward the government complaining that the government was wasting their tax dollars on photography. A relatively sizeable portion of the population believed the subjects of the FSA photographs were hopelessly poor because they did little for themselves to pull themselves out of poverty. These people thought the photographs most likely exaggerated the situations and the government should not bail out everyone who was in economic difficulty. Yet others resented attention being called to problems of dreary conditions in their locality.

The photographs did serve a useful purpose despite the various viewpoints. By 1936 the plight of tenant farmers, farmers who pay a landowner for use of the land to farm, weighed heavy on some of the country’s leaders. The photographs only tended to affirm what they saw as a desperate need and called them to action. That year President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a Special Committee on Farm Tenancy. Senator John Bankhead of Alabama and Representative Marvin Jones of Texas drafted tenancy legislation. Numerous congressmen debated ways to improve the rural poor situation. On the other hand, congressmen often considered the photographs from their own district as hostile publicity and a threat to their reelection. These congressmen did not want to see problems revealed in their own backyard.

Views of the FSA Photographers and Roy Stryker

Generally the FSA photographers operated with a zeal and conviction believing their photographs could prompt social change. They reflected the enthusiasm and energy of their administrative leader, Roy Stryker. For the most part photographers felt Stryker was a gifted teacher and had the ability to understand aspects of the photographs both seen and unseen sent back to him. Most viewed him as an enabler, providing guidance, field money, and protection from politicians and officials who attempted to cut the budget of the Historical Section.

Most importantly, as Arthur Rothstein noted, Stryker never restricted what pictures the photographers could take—he believed there was no such thing as wasted film or time. John Vachon, who stayed with Stryker longer than any other photographer, interpreted Stryker’s intent as allowing his people to photograph anything they really “saw,” and to gather photographs covering many aspects of American life, not just of those people in miserable conditions.

On the other hand Walker Evans saw Stryker as a person who did not understand the artistic approach to photography. He often referred to Stryker as just trying to fill a file. Evans, however, admitted he himself was uncompromisingly independent and almost felt sorry for Stryker trying to put up with him. Ben Shahn also criticized Stryker for punching holes in countless negatives that he did not think would ever be needed. Dorothea Lange recognized weaknesses in the organization but believed these weaknesses just made it a human organization. She and Jack Delano viewed their time with the section as a tremendous learning experience and a chance to help less fortunate individuals in society.

Impact

Films and Books Spawned by FSA Photographers

The philosophy behind the FSA photographic project, to educate then stimulate reform, was the spearhead of several classic documentary films. Congress abolished the United States Film Service, headed by Pare Lorentz, in 1941, but not before the production of famed Depression era films. They included The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), The River(1937), and Fight for Life (1940), all Pare Lorentz epics; Jori’s Ivens Power and the Land (1940), and Raymond Evans’The Home Place (1941). While working on the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath John Ford sought out Dorothea Lange’s photographs as primary source material.

Lange and her husband Paul Schuster Taylor made artistic use of her FSA photographs in an American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939). The book was a study on migrant labor. Walker Evans: American Photographs(1938) and Evans’ work with James Agee to produce the masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) were related to the FSA web.

Other related books illustrated with and inspired by FSA photographs were Archibald MacLeish’s Land of the Tree(1938), Herman Clarence Nixon’s Forty Acres and Steel Mules (1938); Sherwood Anderson’s Home Town (1940); 12 Million Black Voices (1941) by Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam; and, Arthur Paper’s Tenants of the Almighty (1943).

The War Years and Beyond

The documentary photography of the Great Depression created a remarkable visual history of the United States. Government photographers captured on film sources of everyday life, especially of minorities, poor people, and dwellers of rural areas. By 1941 the nation was gearing up for war and the government’s photography needs turned to showing off the wartime buildup. The Office of War Information (OWI), created in 1942, served essentially as a propaganda agency during World War II.

During 1942 and 1943 the OWI had two photographic units. Roy Stryker’s FSA Historical Section was absorbed into OWI. Stryker still headed the department and a few of his FSA photographers followed him: Russell Lee, John Vachon, and John Collier, Jr. The second division was the New Bureau, but the two were merged in 1943. The OWI photographers were sent out on missions for the purpose of illustrating the best of American know how. The photographers in both units captured America’s war mobilization, focusing on such topics as aircraft factories and women in the labor force.

In 1943 Stryker prepared to leave the OWI to become director of photography for Standard Oil of New Jersey. Paul Vanderbilt, a curator of collections, was responsible for organizing Stryker’s FSA negatives and prints. They were then boxed up with their ultimate destination unknown, perhaps even the government dump in Virginia. Only direct intervention at the last minute saved the collection. Poet Archibald MacLeish, an old friend of Stryker’s and serving as Librarian of Congress, saw that the boxes came to the Library of Congress where they found a permanent home. In 1944 the Library of Congress received 277,000 negatives and 77,000 prints, the work of the Historical Section of RA, FSA, and OWI, collectively known as the FSA/OWI Collection.

In addition to the collections finding a permanent home and lasting use, a number of photographers involved in the federal projects went on to distinguished careers as teachers, writers, photojournalists, and artists. The RA and FSA were fertile ground for nurturing talent. Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans were among 19 masters who were selected by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall and presented in their book Masters of Photography. Arthur Rothstein was the Technical Director of Photography for Look magazine and John Vachon was also with that publication. Carl Mydans joined Lifemagazine at its inception in 1936 and was still with the magazine in the 1960s. Ben Shahn became a major figure in American art, often including people from his FSA photographs in his paintings and murals. Jack Delano became the general manager of the radio and television service of the Department of Education of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. He composed music that was regularly performed by the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. Russell Lee continued to make important contributions to documentary photography. He joined the faculty of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Texas where he remained until retirement in 1974.

Art and Photojournalism

The FSA project produced powerful artistic statements amid an accurate photographic record. Although artistic expression was not the original goal of FSA photographers, their work introduced the general public to the modern notion that photography could be an art form. During the 1940s and 1950s the idea grew that photography itself was an artistic medium to be seriously studied. Galleries began selling photography and art museums took photographs into their permanent collections. Photograph collecting, publishing, and exhibiting increased across the nation.

In 1962 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized a showing of FSA photography titled “The Bitter Years: 1935-1941.” Reportedly when Stryker first saw the exhibit, although only the finest photographs were hung, he was dismayed that none of the later, more upbeat, everyday life photographs were exhibited.

The power of images taken by documentary photographers during the Great Depression contributed significantly to the rise of photojournalism, seen in popular magazines such as Life and Look, and weekly releases of black-and-white newsreel footage of current events that played at motion picture theaters across the nation. Americans became accustomed to seeing current events. A byproduct of the documentary work of the New Deal was the rise of photojournalism as a profession.

The use of documentary photojournalism to illustrate social concerns was prevalent during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. The socially concerned of those decades found support in the private sector rather than government agencies. Unlike in the 1930s, photodocumentaries of civil rights and anti-war movements were often charges against the government and the American culture itself.

The interest in photographs as artistic expression and a form of journalism continued throughout the twentieth century. Photography education opportunities abounded in universities, high schools, technical schools, and recreation programs. Commercial photography interests surged, especially in large cultural centers in the 1980s and 1990s with gallery exhibitions, books, catalogues, and photodocumentary projects. One example was a 1987-1988 large-scale documentary photography project entitled “Changing Chicago.” The project involved 33 photographers and was in part inspired by the FSA photographers’ work in Chicago.

No other nation secured a documentation of everyday life like that developed during the Great Depression in the United States. The work of Stryker and his staff can be examined in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. There are approximately 80,000 captioned prints and 170,000 unprinted negatives. Books organized by topics, such as transportation, medicine, and by specific states have expanded the public’s awareness of the FSA photographers’ legacy and the range and diversity of the collection. Also, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the photographs were available as digitized images in the American Memory Project (see http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html). The photographs of the 1930s provide a unique historical record of the United States available to people all over the world.

Notable People

John Collier, Jr. (1913-1992)

Focused on painting when he was a young man, Collier attended the California School of Fine Arts. Since childhood, he had known Dorothea Lange and that friendship eventually shifted his interest to photography. Collier was the last photographer hired for the Historical Section in the summer of 1941. Collier, however, moved with Roy Stryker to the OWI in 1942 and later to Standard Oil.

His first assignment for the Historical Section was to go to New England to capture the “smell” of burning leaves. He traveled to the South to photograph shipbuilding and to the coal mining areas of Pennsylvania to photograph the now “happy” miners as they helped by providing materials for the war effort. Collier also documented the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

At OWI Collier was assigned to document the lives of minority groups working toward the war effort. Fearing his photographs had little to say he convinced Stryker to allow him to go to Taos, New Mexico, where he covered an FSA project and did a fine, in-depth study of Mexican American culture. Collier combined his photography with the field of anthropology completing books on Alaskan Eskimos and the Navajo Indians. He played a prominent role in the development of federal Indian policy in the mid-twentieth century.

Jack Delano (1914-1997)

A student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), where he focused on drawing and painting, Jack Delano received financial assistance available to students of PAFA to study in Europe in 1936. Off to Europe, Delano bought a small camera to document his trip. By the time he returned to the United States, he had become quite proficient with his camera and joined the Federal Arts Project to do a study of mining conditions in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.

Presenting the two small portfolio albums he had developed to Roy Stryker, Delano next applied for a job at the Historical Section. When, in 1940, Arthur Rothstein was planning to leave the section, Stryker hired Delano. For the Historical Section Delano traveled to New England, Greene County, Georgia, then up the entire east coast from Georgia to Maine documenting migrant agricultural workers.

In 1941 Stryker sent Delano on an assignment to the Virgin Islands and to Puerto Rico. The onset of World War II at the end of that year prevented his return to the United States. His work in Puerto Rico was the first done outside of the country by any member of the Historical Section.

Delano made his home in Puerto Rico and managed the government’s Television and Radio Service for many years. He also composed music performed by the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. All the while, Delano continued his interest in photography.

Walker Evans (1903-1975)

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Walker Evans grew up in Chicago, Toledo, and New York City. He attended Andover and Williams College but did not take a degree. Following a year in Paris, Evans returned to the United States in 1927 and turned to photography. He read widely and studied particularly the street photographs of Eugene Atget, a French realist.

Evans’s work in documentary photography commenced in 1932 on a yacht trip to Tahiti, and the following year he had developed a photo portfolio for a book about Cuba. Evans began using a large format camera to emphasize what he called his “documentary style.” He went to work for the Resettlement Administration in 1935 but had conflicts with Roy Stryker, administrator of the Historical Section. Evans was fiercely individualistic and generally refused to check in with Stryker when he was out on assignment, yet the photographs he did complete for the Historical Section were flawless.

Evans took a leave of absence in 1936 to take photos of tenant farmers in Alabama, which were used in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1942). In 1937 Stryker terminated Evans due to the difficulty Stryker had in justifying to government officials his keeping of Evans, with his uncooperative practices, on the program. Evans subsequently went on to have a distinguished career as a photographer for Time and Fortune.

Theo Jung (1906-?)

A native of Austria, Jung arrived in Chicago by 1912 and took up an amateur interest in photography. In 1934 he joined the Federal Relief Administration in Washington, DC, to prepare pictorial statistics and develop charts on unemployment. Continuing to take photos in his spare time he prepared a portfolio dramatically illustrating the slums of Washington.

In September 1935 he presented the portfolio to Roy Stryker and was immediately hired for the Historical Section. On assignment Jung journeyed to Garrett County, Maryland, Brown County, Indiana, and Jackson County, Ohio, to focus on people and interiors. A photograph of an old couple in their doorway and another of a woman reflected in her dresser mirror, both taken in Brown County in October 1935, were among his most famous photographs.

By 1936 Stryker had become dismayed at Jung for his lack of background preparation before an assignment and also believed his proficiency with a camera was lacking. In May 1936 Stryker let Jung go. Theo Jung went on to pursue an interest in book design and calligraphy, winning many awards in book and publication design.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Dorothea Lange’s early life was marked with difficulties. Born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn, she contracted polio at age seven and was left with a damaged right leg; at twelve her father abandoned the family. Dorothea grew up in New Jersey and New York City. At age eighteen she decided to become a photographer. She saw the profession as a trade, not as an art. She took her mother’s name, Lange, and, in 1918, moved to California, where she found work in a photo-finishing shop.

Lange established many ties with other photographers and, in 1919, opened her own studio. She was married in 1920 to Maynard Dixon, an artist and illustrator of Western scenes. The Dixons separated in 1931 and, shortly thereafter, Lange began taking documentary photographs, not of the elite in her studio but of common folk on the streets of San Francisco.

In 1935 Lange found employment photographing migrant agricultural laborers in California; she also married Paul S. Taylor, director of California’s State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA). Taylor grasped the value of Lange’s haunting photographs and used them extensively in his reports. Intermittently between 1935 and 1942, Lange worked as a photographer for the RA and the FSA, both in California and in the South.

Lange became famous for a number of her photographs, especially “The Migrant Mother” and “Ma Burnham.” With the onset of World War II she photographed the relocation of Japanese-Americans, Okies and Arkies who had moved to California, and Mormon families in Utah. Lange became one of the most famous American woman photographers of the twentieth century.

Russell Lee (1903-1986)

Lee had a troubled and lonely childhood. He earned a degree in chemical engineering in 1925, but, in 1929, used an inheritance to become an artist. In time Lee turned to photography and, in 1936, went to work for the RA and then the FSA. He was a skilled documentary photographer who captured poverty through realistic images of families and individuals beset by the Great Depression. Lee’s work for the federal government continued until 1942. Some of his most compelling images were of life in St. Augustine, Texas, and Pie Town, New Mexico.

Henry Luce (1898-1967)

Born in China to American missionary parents, Henry Luce attended Yale University and enlisted for service in World War I. He finished college in 1920, studied at Oxford University, and entered journalism. In 1923 Luce and a business partner, Briton Hadden, founded Time, a magazine with thumbnail news stories. In 1929 he launched Fortune, a magazine covering business and economic affairs. Luce’s company, Time, Inc., purchasedArchitectural Forum in 1932 and in 1935 began the documentary film series, “The March of Time.” The films were high quality, documentary photojournalism released in theaters around the world.

In 1936 Luce began publication of Life, a magazine devoted to photojournalism. Life attracted millions of subscribers, reaching a high of 7 million in 1971. The magazine featured the photographs of hundreds of photographers whose images, it was estimated, were viewed by as many as 20 million a week. Life had a wide coverage of subjects: poverty, construction, farming, nature, war, accidents, tragedies, politics, and manufacturing. The magazine became a pivotal element of Luce’s prosperous company, Time, Inc., later known as Time-Life.

As war threatened to engulf the United States by 1941, Henry Luce became greatly concerned about the nation’s isolationism and the predicament of Great Britain fighting virtually alone against Germany. Luce’s essay, “The American Century,” published in Life during the winter of 1941, argued for American involvement and construction of a new world order.

Carl Mydans (1907-)

Graduating from the School of Journalism at Boston University in 1930, Carl Mydans began his career as a writer but in 1931 purchased his first 35mm camera, a Contax, and began freelancing. Displaying an early talent, a few of his first photographs were sold to Time magazine.

It was Time editor Daniel Lonwell that recommended Mydans to Robert Thorpe of the Resettlement Administration. Thorpe hired Mydans to work on his Thorpe project, a book of suburban resettlement. Later in 1935 Mydans was reassigned to Stryker’s Historical Section. Stryker was delighted to incorporate Mydans’s previous work into the section’s files.

Finding himself among skilled photographers, Mydans’s gift for photography developed rapidly. Mydans traveled through Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, witnessing the struggle of the rural poor and focusing on the people of the cotton fields.

Mydans stayed with the Historical Section less than a full year but gained a broadened awareness of his country and the conditions that influenced its people. He joined the newly formed Life magazine in late 1936 where he became an honored photojournalist. He covered World War II in all theaters, Europe and the Far East, and was even a prisoner of war for a time in both Japan and China. In 1950 Mydans again was at the front in the Korean conflict. He was awarded the Gold Achievement Award by U.S. Camera magazine for his photographs of the Korean conflict.

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985)

Rothstein was born in New York City. When he was about five years old he got his first camera and began his lifelong interest in photography. As a student at Columbia, where he earned a degree in 1935, Rothstein worked as an assistant to Roy Stryker, head of the Historical Section of the RA and FSA. Much of Rothstein’s work concerned Dust Bowl conditions in the Midwest. He left federal employment in 1940 and had a long career as a documentary photographer and photo editor for Look. Rothstein helped found the American Society of Magazine Photographers and wrote nine books, including the textbook Photojournalism (1956).

Ben Shahn (1898-1969)

Born in Russia, Shahn and his family escaped Jewish persecution in 1906 and settled in Brooklyn. Shahn dropped out of school to become a lithographer and graphic artist. He eventually completed his high school diploma and studied at New York University and City College of New York and between 1922 and 1935 Shahn worked primarily as an artist. His works included tempera murals and watercolor paintings.

He began work in 1935 for the RA as an artist and photographer. He had mastered photography while sharing a studio with Walker Evans. During the later 1930s Shahn took more than six thousand photographs, mostly in the rural South and Midwest. He then resumed his work as a muralist. He said that his work as a New Deal photographer shifted his focus from “social realism” to “personal realism.”

Roy E. Stryker (1893-1975)

Born in Kansas, Stryker grew up in Colorado. He served in World War I, graduated in 1924 with a degree in economics from Columbia University, and joined his mentor, Rexford Tugwell, to teach economics. Stryker and Tugwell collaborated to produce and illustrate American Economic Life (1925).

Stryker grasped the value of using photographs in publications and teaching. When Tugwell became a member of President Roosevelt’s “brain trust,” he gained responsibility for organizing the Resettlement Administration, later the Farm Security Administration. Stryker moved to Washington, DC, in 1935 to serve as head of the Historical Section of the FSA and direct its photo documentation projects.

Stryker recruited some of the nation’s finest photographers to work between 1935 and 1945 for the RA, FSA, and the Office of War Information. Stryker was not a photographer, but he saw the value of enhancing public understanding of Great Depression conditions and New Deal projects through still photography. Stryker publicized and made available the work of his photographic staff for newspapers and Life and Look, photojournalism magazines of the 1930s. Stryker was the highly skilled and insightful administrator of one of the nation’s most significant documentary projects.

John Vachon (1915-1975)

An unemployed graduate student in Washington, DC, specializing in Elizabethan poetry, John Vachon’s job prospects were not good in the Great Depression year of 1936. With the help of a friendly hometown congressman, Vachon became eligible to interview for low-level government jobs. Vachon landed a job in Stryker’s Historical Section as an assistant messenger carrying papers between government buildings. Most of Vachon’s work, however, would be copying captions onto the back of 8 by 10 glossy prints.

Gradually Vachon, promoted to junior file clerk, grew to know the section’s files better than anyone but Stryker. He knew all the photographers’ individual styles and memorized the file numbers of the most popular photographs. Vachon became caught up in the photographers’ enthusiasm for the New Deal and he would ultimately stay with Stryker longer than any other of the photographers.

As Vachon cruised through the files he noticed there were many scenes in Washington, DC, that needed to be added to the files. With Stryker’s permission and under the tutelage of Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein, Vachon began his photography career. A few of Vachon’s photographs found their way into the files.

Vachon, still a junior file clerk but now armed with a camera, was sent to the Great Plains of Kansas and Nebraska in October 1938 for a full month assignment. In 1940, for the first time as a full-fledged FSA photographer, he went on assignment to North and South Dakota. In 1942 Vachon traveled on assignment to Maryland, West Virginia, and throughout the upper Midwest.

Vachon went with Stryker to the OWI, then to active military duty. Upon discharge he spent the better part of his career at Look magazine. He exhibited prints at the Museum of Modern Art and taught master classes in photography.

Minor White (1908-1976)

Born in Minneapolis, White studied at the University of Minnesota where he earned a degree in 1934. In 1937 White moved to Portland, Oregon, where he became a documentary photographer. He was employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Art Program to take photographs of the city’s waterfront buildings being razed as part of an urban improvement project. White began exhibiting his photographs and teaching photography. Most of White’s career as a teacher, writer, and photographer fell after his service in World War II. He held several academic appointments. He helped found and edited Aperture, an important periodical concerned with photography, from 1952 to 1975.

Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990)

Studying at the University of Vienna in Austria, Wolcott became friends with several professional photographers. She was given a Rolleiflex camera just prior to her return to the United States and she took an active interest in photography as a profession.

Post Wolcott landed a job as staff photographer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1937 and was the only woman on the staff. Rapidly acquiring confidence, experience, and a skill handling all types of people, she presented her portfolio to Roy Stryker in 1938 and immediately found herself in the field with Arthur Rothstein and Russell Lee.

Being a woman, Post Wolcott found she could interact with people without seeming intrusive. She photographed in almost every Southern state. Post Wolcott took some of the best photographs of children in the FSA file. Another of her famed series is of day laborers gambling, dancing, and enjoying their moments away from the fields. Post Wolcott retired from active photography in 1942 to raise her family.

Primary Sources

FSA: The Photographs Talked

Edward Steichen, author of The Bitter Years: 1935-1941 (1962, p. vi), reflects on the photography that grew out of the Great Depression,

Have a look into the faces of the men and women in these pages. Listen to the story they tell and they will leave with you a feeling of a living experience you won’t forget; and the babies here, and the children; weird, hungry, dirty, loveable, heart-breaking images; and then there are the fierce stories of strong, gaunt men and women in time of flood and drought.… It is not the individual photographers that make these pictures so important, but it is the job as a whole as it has been produced by the photographers as a group that makes it such a unique and outstanding achievement.

The Freedom of Photographs

Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon discussed how the photographers greatly expanded the original vision of FSA by photographing anything and everything. Some of Rothstein’s comments on the purpose of the FSA and on its photographers are reproduced in Thomas Garver’s Just Before the War: Urban America From 1935 to 1941 As Seen By Photographers of the Farm Security Administration (1968).

It is true that the original purpose of the Farm Security photographer was to document rural scenes, especially those that related to the efforts of the Government to improve the conditions of people engaged in agriculture, but all of these photographers were curious, inquisitive people and they could not, by their very personality and nature, confine themselves merely to rural conditions. They were exposed to cities as they went through them and they saw things that they felt should be reported and document[ed] …

Naturally, at the same time, I looked at all the other parts of the city and took many photographs that really had nothing to do with my assignment, because one of the great things about being a photographer in that organization was that you were never restricted. You were allowed to photograph anything that seemed of interest and this is the way a photographer should be treated. A principal was established in the early days that there was no such thing as wasted film or wasted time. I like to think that each picture we made was being shot with a great deal of thought and not just to expose film, but the Farm Security file would never have been created if we hadn’t the freedom to photograph anything, anywhere in the United States—anything that we came across that seemed interesting, and vital.

There are probably thousands of negatives that have never been printed in those files and you could create several exhibitions of different sorts if you wanted to. This was a very prolific group of photographers and we were dedicated to the idea of recording what was happening in the United States in this critical period of our history. It is a period that is just now beginning to acquire some perspective and I’m glad to have been part of it.

Friendly Suggestions—Typical Instructions from Roy Stryker

Roy Stryker sent the following directions to Dorothea Lange on November 19, 1936 as she prepared for her first major trip for the RA (quoted in Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties, 1966, p.70.). These, and other communications, are preserved in the Roy Stryker Collection at the University of Louisville Photographic Archive.

Would you, in the next few days, take for us some good slum pictures in the San Francisco area. (Of course, no California city has slums, but I’ll bet you can find them.) We need to vary the diet in some of our exhibits here by showing some western poverty instead of all south and east … When you get to Los Angeles, I think it might be worthwhile to see if you can pick up some good slum pictures there also. Do not forget that we need some of the rural slum type of thing, as well as the urban …

As you are driving along through the agricultural areas and if you can do it without too much extra effort, would you take a few shots of various types of farm activities such as your picture showing the lettuce workers. I think Dr. Tugwell would be very appreciative of photographs of this sort to be used as illustrative material for some things which the Department of Agriculture is working on.

Suggested Research Topics

  1. Using published collections of photographs or images available from the American Memory Project, Library of Congress, on the World Wide Web, assess the importance of buildings and architectural details in the documentary photos of Walker Evans. Or, assess the camera position and distance Evans used when taking portraits. How did his use of the “built environment” or of portraits capture life in the 1930s?
  2. Using the on-line RA and FSA photographs in the American Memory Project, identify the portrayal of younger Americans in the work of federal photographers. How were the children dressed? What activities were they doing? What can be implied of the children’s lives from the photographs?
  3. Was it possible for government agencies during the New Deal to produce objective, documentary still photographs about the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and government relief projects? Was there a danger that such projects would become propaganda?
  4. Could art-oriented photographers like Walker Evans and Minor White work comfortably within the rules and assignments laid down by a federal agency? Or was the employment of artist-photographers likely to produce tensions and controversy?