Like many governmental agencies, the FSA set up a publicity department to help explain to the public and Congress what its programs were trying to accomplish and the problems it was trying to solve. But because of the desperation of the Depression and the missionary zeal of the New Dealers, the FSA went far beyond almost any other agency before or since in documenting this era.
Photographs like Arthur Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm” (right) and “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange have become icons by which later generations have been able to sense what the Depression must have felt like living through it.
The FSA built a remarkable collection of more than 80,000 photographs of America during the Depression because they hired great photographers and a great administrator to lead them. Roy Stryker was an economist from Columbia University before he was hired to head the “Historical Section” of the FSA. His job, according to his boss Rexford Tugwell, was to “show the city people what it’s like to live on the farm.”
Stryker was not a photographer, but he knew great photographs. He had worked on documentary photography projects before and knew the power of photographs. He hired photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, John Collier, Jr., Carl Mydans and Gordon Parks. For nine years, he sent them all across the U.S. to produce what he saw as a “visual encyclopedia of American life.”
As the photos began to come back from the field, Stryker worked to get them published. They were. Newspapers across the nation ran photographs from the FSA along with stories that talked about the causes of dust storms and plight of migrant farm workers. Influential magazines of the time like Life, Look, and Survey Graphic published the photographs. Galleries like the Photo League in New York mounted shows of FSA work.
While Stryker intended to document all of American life, his photographers paid special attention to rural America. He shared the New Deal understanding of the importance of the agriculture to the overall economy.
Throughout the years, each new generation has been exposed to the photographs of the FSA. That is in part due to the quality of the work, but it is also because the entire collection is available to publishers copyright free. Since the work was completed for the government, any print can be purchased from the Library of Congress for a nominal printing fee.
In the late 70s and 80s, photographer and author Bill Ganzel tracked down some of the same people first photographed by the FSA. That work resulted in the book Dust Bowl Descent, and you can find more information about it here. Here are some of the photographers who worked for the FSA and went on to have illustrious careers.
Dorothea Lange’s photo of Nettie Featherston
Click on the film icon to see an interview with Nettie. Click on the PDF Handout icon for a print version of the interview.
Russell Lee’s photo of William Huravitch
Click on the film icon to see an interview with William Huravitch.
|John Vachon’s photo of Madge May
Click on the film icon to see an interview with Madge May.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.