Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programme, the Farm Security Administration was an organisation which aimed to help farmers suffering under the effects of the Depression. The organisation was formed in 1935 as the Resettlement Agency before becoming part of the Department of Agriculture in 1937 and being renamed the Farm Security Administration -photographs from the organisation are commonly termed FSA. The Historical Section Photographic was a division of the FSA supervised by Roy Stryker with the aim of gathering photographic evidence of the agency’s good works in order to communicate these to the American people. Around 20 photographers worked for the FSA between 1935-42 , when the organisation was subsumed within the Office of War Information including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, Carl Mydans, Ben Stahn, Margaret Bourke-White.
Photographs from the FSA have to represent concerned photography in general and are often described as revealing the human face of Depression era America. Many participants have subsequently been hailed as ‘great’ photographers with their works being reproduced extensively, many eventually being presented as works of art on a gallery setting. Tagg (1993: 13) argues various factors converged to enable the success of the FSA documentary project: new technology such as advances in mechanical reproduction and in cameras themselves; new techniques of graphics layout, presentation and reportage; new styles of publication and exhibition; new styles of promotion and exhibition. These innovations made publicity the central basis of political communication: “documentary emerged not as a specialist or aesthetic discourse, but as a popular form with an unprecedented audience and dispersal.”
Roy Stryker (1893-1976)
Stryker stood over the FSA, scheduling assignments, drafting shooting scripts and distributing photographs to media outlets in a style that is described as autocratic. His strategy was to concentrate on life in small towns and he was proud of what he saw as his ability to shape views of the Depression while avoiding tabloid voyeurism: “You’ll find no record of big people or big events…There are no pictures of sit down strikes, no apple salesman on street corners, not a single shot of Wall Street, and absolutely no celebrities.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 248) Stryker’s control over the output of the FSA is perhaps best demonstrated by his approach to editing – images that were deemed as not complying with the aim of the organisation were permanently destroyed with a hole punch through the negative/print.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Perhaps the quintessential FSA photographer, Lange was driven by a sense of social justice and belief that photography can reveal inequality – she believed that documentary was a sober, serious business, “sociology with a camera.” (Badger, 2001: 77) ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936), while not a typical Lange image, became a national icon of the Depression as well as the defining photograph of the FSA project. Lange herself was troubled by the emotive nature of the image and feared it could be seen as propagandist, significantly the picture was left out of ‘An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion’ (1939), her photobook collaboration with her economist/activist husband Paul Schuster Taylor.
Walker Evans (1903-1975)
One of the first photographers to be hired by Stryker, Evans was also the most controversial. Known as the bad boy of the FSA, Evans showed disdain for Stryker’s assignment guidelines and was eventually dismissed in 1937 with the autocratic Stryker no longer able to tolerate Evans’ desire to record handmade advertising signs and austere domestic interiors as anonymous folk art. Evans FSA photographs are an early example of recontextualisation of the projects output, his 1938 exhibition at MoMA ‘American Photographs’ was the first by a photographer. Evans distanced himself from the idea of photographs as documents arguing that this is kind of images made by police photographers. He claimed to work in the ‘documentary style’, that is in a subjective, individual and artistic way. He believed in finding scenes and objects whose appearance implied a story or acted as a metaphor towards life. Warner Marien (2014: 279) uses ‘Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’ (1937) as an example of this: the image symbolically guides the viewer from background to foreground through a narrative of work, home life and death, people are absent form the image, however, the flattened perspective is suggestive of restricted lives.
Evans collaborated with writer James Agee on ‘Let us Now Praise Famous Men’ (1941) in 1937 on a commission for Fortune magazine. He chronicled the lives of three impoverished families of cotton farmers in Hale County, Alabama, however, the project was cancelled by Fortune due to Agee’s procrastination. When eventually published in 1941 the book was a failure, perhaps due to being in the shadow of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s ‘You Have Seen Their Faces.’
Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985)
‘Fleeing a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936’ is Rothstein’s most famous image and one that has come to symbolise the dust bowl experience. His work was overshadowed however by a scandal involving a photograph he made in South Dakota in 1936 where he moved a bleached cattle skull for aesthetic reasons. Although Rothstein was not dismissed from the FSA there was real fear that the scandal would taint the intent of the project and lead to withdrawal of funding. Ironically, the ‘Migrant Mother’, the FSAs most famous image and a photograph that is often cited as a quintessential social documentary image, was airbrushed to remove hand at the edge of the frame deemed distracting.
Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)
‘You Have Seen Their Faces’ (1937), a collaboration with Erskine Caldwell, was a massively successful photobook on publication and perhaps the first to show the kind of imagery the FSA photographers were producing in book form. The images which showed the impoverished lives of sharecroppers were controversially accompanied by fictional dialogue written by Erskine.
The paradox of the FSA documentary project:
That the FSA photographs are frequently hailed as the pinnacle of the golden age of objective documentary obscures many of the realities of the project – this was a government backed programme with clear ideological purpose, some may argue propaganda, that pursued a particular set agenda and dismissed anything that did not meet this criteria. The photographs have subsequently become synonymous with the Depression in America despite showing only a narrow set of circumstances, predominantly the experience of sharecroppers migrating from the South to California which is a clear demonstration of how documentary is not pure objectivity but a constructed work edited to produce a particular response in the spectator. The common motif of the FSA images, which are predominately of individuals and families, is that of people that are weary and defenceless, their domestic situation shown packed up and relocated to strange, outdoor places. Despite this, the bonds of affection between people, frequently mothers and children, recurs which helps identify with them as ordinary people like us who have had the misfortune to fall on harsh times.
The images are often densely constructed – on a simple level they contain evidence of the existence of poverty, but there is a complexity that means many images are both of anonymous people with representative qualities who are also individuals that are not mere icons of the dispossessed. We are asked to connect and accept connections between our own lives and the experience of the migrant workers and “to accept that these are ‘honest’ images drawn form life…[and] the product of extraordinarily gifted photographers.” (Wells, 2009: 99) The contradictions inherent in social documentary are revealed in the photographs which are historical yet timeless, densely coded yet transparent, highly specific yet universal. For Tagg (1993: 13-14) the FSA photographs are a cultural intervention aimed at resealing social unity and structures of belief at a time of crisis. The images rendered social and economic upheaval visible, however, this was with the clear aim of furthering acceptance of the paternal philanthropic reformism of the New Deal strategy.
Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.
Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Tagg, J. (1993) The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. (2nd Ed.) MN: University of Minnesota Press
Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed) Abingdon: Routledge.