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How FSA Photography Changed the World

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In the middle of President Roosevelt's "New Deal," a group was assembled to fight the effects of poverty among rural areas of the United States during the Great Depression. However, the Farm Security Administration isn't remembered for its rehabilitation efforts so much as its photographs and the team who captured them. Their work not only defined modern photojournalism and painted a picture of the Great Depression, but changed the world.

At the onset of 2009, the United States and the world fell downward into wide scale economic decline. Even today, our society is still healing from and combatting the effects of what became known as "The Great Recession." With a name playing off the last great economic crisis, the 2009 situation paled in comparison to the chaos wrought by the Great Depression. 1930s America was in bad shape, and the government took huge steps to try to get things back on the right track.

How It Started

The Roosevelt Administration was able to get Congress to pass the "First New Deal" in 1933. By financing infrastructure projects and instituting reform, the administration hoped to provide jobs and relief to the staggering unemployment lines during the Great Depression, while at the same time attempting to bring the American economy back into line. The First New Deal brought about projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Public Works Administration.

In 1935, as part of the "Second New Deal," the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created. The FSA's main goal was to improve the conditions and resources available to farmers by creating a more suitable environment for agricultural growth. You might not realize, but the Great Depression and the Dustbowl crisis in the lower midwestern states, were connected. Whole farms turned to dust and blew away. Part of the FSA's mission was to prevent this from happening again by improving farming techniques, however, the FSA became best known for its Information Division.

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Roy Stryker, the man who recruited and led the FSA photographers. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Leading up the Information Division was Roy Stryker, a hobbyist photographer and government employee who had served in WWI. Stryker set out to create an ambitious photo documentary project that would tell the story of the struggles facing America and the government's efforts to provide relief.

The "Second New Deal" also created the Works Progress Administration, later renamed the Work Projects Administration, and commonly called the WPA.

The Photographers

Throughout the course of the FSA's seven year life, eleven photographers were chosen by Stryker as documentarians. While their names are easily recognizable in the art world now, at the time they were a mixed bag of professionals from different walks of life.

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FSA photographer Walker Evans. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

They were Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russel Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon

How It Worked

Stryker took confidence in his team and would assign general themes and geographic areas, but ultimately gave the photographers free reign to document their assignments as they saw fit.

His agenda was for the photographs to reinforce the social engineering ideals set forth by The New Deal, essentially propaganda to be used to convince the public that the government needed spend money and help all the people who were suffering.

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"Dust Bowl Farmers of West Texas Town" taken in 1937 by Dorathea Lange. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The project would go on to become so much more than that. Today, it is regarded as one of the finest examples of modern documentary photography in the world. Let's take a look at some of the masterpiece that were produced by FSA photographers.

Dorothea Lange and Migrant Mother

Perhaps one of the best examples of the FSA's work is the image known as "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange. In 1936, while traveling through Niporno, California, Lange came across a mother and her children in a migrant farmer's camp.

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a 1960 interview, Lange told Popular Photography magazine that the mother, later identified as Florence Thompson, had just sold the tires from her car in order to afford food while the family lived off of nearby vegetables and birds the children had killed around their camp.

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While the photo entitled "Migrant Mother" became the most recognized image from Lange's encounter, there are several more images on record with the FSA depicting Thompson's weathered expression as her children huddle around her.

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Gordon Parks and American Gothic

Gordon Parks is one of the best known FSA photographers, but his resume of accomplishments before his death in 2006 went well beyond photography. Parks was an author, poet, songwriter and director. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, he left home at the age of 14. Parks eventually landed in Chicago where at the age of 25 he had established himself as a well known freelance photographer.

Parks' work caught the attention of the FSA's Roy Stryker who hired him. During Park's time with the FSA, one of his most iconic images was created. Entitled "American Gothic," the image depicts a portrait of Ella Watson, a government worker whom Parks had befriended. His staged portrait of her has the subject making direct eye contact with the camera clutching her broom as the American flag and a mop dominate the background.

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The photograph's composition echoed Grant Wood's famous "American Gothic" painting and became a symbol of the Civil Rights story that was beginning to play out in America. After working with the FSA, Parks became the first African-American staff member at LIFE magazine.

Walker Evans and the Roadside Stand Near Birmingham, Alabama

In the early 1930s, Walker Evans had been making name for himself as a photographer in the Northeast. He joined the FSA in 1935, working with the administration until 1938. Much of Evans' work focused on families and how they were being affected by the Depression.

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the years after his work for the FSA, Evans continued his photography work and eventually became a writer for TIME magazine, an editor at Fortune magazine and the head of photography at Yale University. A collection of his work featured in the Museum of Modern Art titled, "Walker Evans" still travels around the country for exhibitions in museums today.

Jack Delano and the Females Workers of World War II

Jack Delano immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was nine years old. A gifted art student, Delano submitted a story he had photographed on Pennsylvania mining conditions to Roy Stryker. Stryker hired Delano and added him to the FSA's payroll.

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One of his most iconic images shows female workers at an industrial railroad facility who have replaced men that were drafted into the war effort. The women, employed as wipers, were pictured having lunch in their restroom at C. & N.W. Railroad.

Delano's work focused heavily on documenting rail yards and industry. Delano differs from the other FSA photographers in that by the time he came to be with the organization, much of the Depression's effects had faded off and World War II was in full swing. Delano remained with the FSA until it was disbanded in late 1943.

The WPA Photographers

The WPA, or Work Projects Administration, ran alongside the FSA and funded a huge amount of work all over the country. It's said that almost every town in the United States has a park, playground, bridge or school that was built during this period as part of a WPA project. Artists, writers, laborers and even actors and musicians were employed for ambitious assignments.

A scene from Cincinnati, Ohio photographed by John Vachon.A scene from Cincinnati, Ohio photographed by John Vachon.A scene from Cincinnati, Ohio photographed by John Vachon.
A scene from Cincinnati, Ohio photographed by John Vachon. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The photographers who were employed during this period are often overshadowed by the elite FSA team, but their work was just as important. It provided a massive visual archive of close to 200,000 photos that are now available online along with the FSA work. The scope of the photographs is huge. Many cities and every state are represented. The online catalog is worth browsing, even if you only search for photos of places you're familiar with.

A Longterm Legacy

We now live in a different world. At any time, we can access the vast wealth of human knowledge on mobile devices in our pockets. Those same devices can capture images and video then instantly share that media with the world, all while receiving news and information from multiple sources and mediums.

Yet, it seems, with all the multimedia and visual stimuli we consume, very little of it comes close to evoking the same emotions and telling the same types of stories that the FSA photographers did. The FSA was born out of the government's need to document and trumpet its efforts, to convince and display to the populace that it wasn't just working to make things better, it was succeeding.

The project ended up being more than just a propaganda piece. It's a story. A story of a time we've passed and an era bygone. Not just one of older technologies and different political landscapes, but how we viewed the world around us. It's a documentary, it's art and maybe most importantly - it's our history.

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