The Depression-Era FSA Photo Project: An Agent for Public Awareness and Social Change / Liz Goldner
The Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) Photographic Unit, 1935-1944, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1935-1943 were two quite separate programs of the New Deal Projects in the United States. They were not only different from each other, their essential natures were dissimilar.
Dorothea Lange, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California,” 1936, photograph. All photos are courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
The WPA’s arts initiative employed tens of thousands of artists, actors, musicians and writers, allowing them the freedom to create as they wished. By contrast, the FSA Photo Project employed highly skilled, well-established photographic artists to document the travails and triumphs of Depression-era Americans. While the WPA emphasized creative freedom, the FSA gave its team of photographers shooting scripts. The Photo Project, with Roy E. Stryker as its director, was not only the largest documentary photography project ever undertaken by either the government or privately. It challenged the many critics of the time who attacked the FSA as being “socialistic.”
In a 1963 interview, conducted by Richard Doud for the Archives of American Art, Stryker described his FSA team as “… intelligent people reporting things that they felt and saw based upon past experience, based upon a good deal of investigation. And above all else, particularly as regards the human side of this, a sincere, passionate love of people, and respect for people that recognized peculiar situations whether it be a piece of geography or a human being, and recognized the pertinent things in this particular situation.”
Dorothea Lange, “Missouri family of five, seven months from the drought area.
Broke, baby sick, car trouble,” U.S. 99 near Tracy, California, 1937, photograph
Many of those photographers went on to forge their own careers, helping to define photojournalism after World War II, working for picture-oriented publications such as Life and Look. A few FSA photographers had their images included in the landmark 1955 “Family of Man” photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. As photographer/curator Edward Steichen wrote about that show, “The people in the audience looked at the pictures, and the people in the pictures looked back at them. They recognized each other.”
The FSA photographers together shot about 250,000 images, most available today through the Library of Congress. Initially they provided important documentation of the FSA’s planning and economic intervention to aid poor farmers, sharecroppers, migrant workers and others, and later chronicled changes in the labor force, including women working in industry during World War II. The photos inform us about those pivotal periods of our country’s history and have helped advance social change to this day.
Dorothea Lange, “White section gang near King City, California. Before the depression this work was done entirely by Mexican labor,” 1937, photograph
The FSA Photo Project was recently brought to the public through the exhibition, “Dorothea Lange’s California: 1935-1942,” at the Great Park Gallery in Irvine, California through the end of 2023. The show includes several dozen Lange images, documenting inequalities in the workforce and the disparities of the American Dream.
Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (featured in the “Family of Man” exhibition) is perhaps the most well-known FSA photo. In this 1936 image, the haggard 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson is portrayed with her hand at her face, flanked by three small, clinging children. This dignified image invariably is a magnet for visitors. Four other photos of single mother Thompson with her seven children are displayed in this show.
Carl Mydans, “Cotton workers on the road, carrying all they possess in the world,” 1936, photograph
Another heartbreaking photo is “Missouri family of five, seven months from the drought area. Broke, baby sick, car trouble. U.S. 99 near Tracy, California” (1937). The title, written by Lange herself, is a straightforward description. Another is “White section gang near King City, California. Before the depression this work was done entirely by Mexican labor” (1937), depicting the backbreaking work that many people engaged in to feed their families.
Other FSA photographers besides Lange help convey the significance of the Photo Project. Marion Post Wolcott's “Negro going in colored entrance of movie house on Saturday afternoon” (1939) is a haunting picture of a man in hat and suit, shrouded in a shadow, looking toward the camera. Ascending a long stairway, he is surrounded by a movie poster, by a small sign that says, “colored adm 10 c” and by a much larger sign that reads “Dr. Pepper GOOD FOR LIFE,” suggesting that the good life is far out of his reach.
Walker Evans, “Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama,” 1935–36, photograph
Walker Evans’ FSA portrait, “Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama” (1935–36), depicts a tired but handsome overall clad farmer. It suggests a time when spiritual and physical health was considered to be related to hard work on the land. Evans was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1938, the museum’s first show devoted to an individual photographer. In Carl Mydans’ “Damned if we’ll work for what they pay folks hereabouts” (1936), two travelers are walking on a desolate country road, carrying all of their worldly possessions, and wearing determined expressions.
Stryker also remarked in his interview with Doud, "I think that to go down there and try to get a photographic project like Farm Security again would — you'd have to surmount some pretty dire situations politically. I don't think the time is right to start another one of these large operations. I don't think it would work."