The FSA collection should be the forever-evolving picture of humanity in time. — John Vachon, Farm Security Administration staff photographer
What if the United States had its own photo album? What if there were a continuous visual record of the everyday lives of Americans, rich and poor, every color and ethnicity? How they partied, how they farmed, how they protested or marched in parades or went to the movies or played cards or gave a baby doll a bath. And what if the people who took the pictures were often artists who produced some of the greatest art in the history of American culture?
OK, that’s a tall order. And it would seem even taller—it would seem, frankly, to be impossible—but for one fact: It has all happened before.
During the Depression, the Roosevelt administration hired a small group of photographers to document the dire conditions of the poorest Americans, especially farmers. The Resettlement Administration, which became the Farm Security Administration, wanted to supply visual evidence to newspapers and magazines of how and where government programs were improving conditions for the most hard-hit. This was, to be honest, propaganda. Luckily, the program had a director with a broader vision. Roy S. Stryker, a Columbia University economist, radically expanded the program’s mission, encouraging his staff to cover not just poverty and not just his department’s success stories but as many aspects of American life and geography as possible.
“For Stryker documentary photography was not about propaganda or even politics,” said John Collier, one of the photographers on the FSA staff. “Stryker was first and last a social geographer and historian. He seized the FSA opportunity to look at the American earth, its rivers, valleys, plains, deserts, and vast western mountains. Artistically and academically Stryker wanted to assemble a model and each incoming picture was another unit in the puzzle that when assembled was the most sweeping record ever made of the American earth and culture.”
Now housed in the Library of Congress, the FSA photographs comprise a still stunning collective portrait of the United States throughout one of its most trying decades, so stunning that it is easy to say that a lot of what may have begun as propaganda ended up as art.
That was just a side benefit, though. Stryker was not much interested in art for its own sake. But he recognized that to get the best out of his staff, he had to give them freedom. This generosity was not lost on his employees: “Our feeling in those years,” said staffer Carl Mydans, “was about equal to the feeling one would have if one was on a holiday somewhere, traveling around with cameras and photographing whatever one thought interesting, that made a good picture. We were as free as that.”
Stryker was extraordinarily fortunate in the people he hired. The photographers who worked for him included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Ben Shahn, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, and John Vachon.
This story has been told many times, in books, documentaries, and exhibitions. But ironically, the more the story is told, the more the list of photographs is reduced to a sort of greatest hits that always included Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” Arthur Rothstein’s image of a father and his children running in a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, and Walker Evans’ images of sharecropping families that would ultimately find their way into his collaborative masterpiece with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Writers, photo curators, and even some of the FSA photographers have tried to push back against this reductionism. “I suppose 85 percent of the pictures in the FSA file have never been seen,” said John Collier. “ It was due to something Dorothea Lange referred to as ‘documentary cookie cutters.’ By the time I got to the FSA the ‘great’ pictures had already been created and the pictures got greater every time they were used. The great pictures of the FSA file are actually fine photographs but they only represent a microcosm of a microcosm.”
Curiously, only one person, Hank O’Neal, ever thought to reach out to the FSA photographers themselves to see what they found most valuable in the FSA archive. He found nine of the original 11 people who shot most of the pictures (Shahn and Lange were already dead by then). With their help and incorporating their testimony about particular images and the program in general, he compiled A Vision Shared, originally published in 1976 and now impeccably republished by Steidl, after years of being out of print (all the quotes in this story come courtesy of O’Neal’s book).
Some of the photographs included are familiar, but many are not, and a sizable number will still give you a jolt—you’re jolted by the miserable ways many people lived through the Depression, by the artistry and compassion of the photographers, and especially by the uncondescending ways they found to give these usually nameless Americans a sense of dignity in the face of almost insurmountable odds. No kidding, this book should be in every American home.
It’s certainly worth pointing out that you can also now download any image in the collection from the Library of Congress website. The other night I spent an hour or so poring over photographs on the LOC website and found a handful taken by Walker Evans in Winston-Salem, N.C., where I grew up a couple of decades after he passed through. If you grew up in the South in the last century, you probably thought as I did that art was something that happened elsewhere, and yet here was Evans in my backyard, and paying far closer attention than I ever did growing up. Evans’ photographs, all captioned “Negro houses, Winston-Salem, North Carolina,” are not beautiful, nor among his best, but they are artful and carefully composed, because the perfectionist Evans was never not an artist. As his fellow FSA photographer Jack Delano said, “I think one of the things that struck me so strongly about Walker Evans’ work was how you can see something which might seem sordid, but see beauty in it and see it composed in a beautiful way, so that the photograph is an artistic expression rather than merely a document of what happened to be in front of everybody.” I immediately downloaded every one of those pictures.
The FSA collection is not so much an education as a re-education. We all know that the Depression was a dire time, but these pictures show us not just how bad things were but also how different the country was then, in ways big and small. They do this collectively, through the gradual accrual of detail. You start to notice that the only people traveling, for example, are rich people vacationing in places like Miami and the very poor, who traveled because they’d lost their homes and farms and had gone looking for work out West. And everyone dressed more formally—even people without much money, even children, put on their Sunday best to go to the movies or a Fourth of July parade.
If such details seem inconsequential, consider how barren our understanding of our own past would be without the evidence supplied by the FSA photographers. Because absolutely no one else was keeping such a systematic record of everything from quilting bees to labor strikes to soil erosion programs or even the ubiquitous habit of papering the interior walls of your house with newspaper because you could not afford anything else.
As John Collier said, “The pictures that we find to be the most important are going to be the ones that people think of as dull. It is the pedestrian shape of the file that holds the great cultural vision. The dramatic pictures will never finally be the thing that will tell us what was going on. Everything is there to reconstruct the period in one hundred years.”
Like O’Neal, I wish someone would resurrect the idea of photographing American life in a systematic fashion, and in such a way that we all had access to the images. Culturally speaking, I can’t imagine a more valuable national project. Of course, expecting the government to do this today is laughable, but in this neo-Medici age, where moguls float everything from symphony orchestras to newspapers, there must be a Gates or Soros or Bezos willing to underwrite the visual recording of daily life in this country (Standard Oil underwrote a version of the FSA program from 1943-1950, with Stryker as director). For that matter, some enterprising curator could probably figure out a way to crowdsource the thing on Instagram without much fuss or money.
The FSA photographs comprise a legacy, but they should not be mere history, a wonderful anomaly that only happened once when the stars aligned. Much has changed since then, of course, but that’s no excuse to do nothing. To the contrary, in fact, because how do we know how much things have changed? Because we can look at the photographs and see. Our descendants are going to want that option too, and they’ll hold us accountable.