The FSA Today?

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During the Great Depression President Roosevelt's New Deal brought about many work and aid programs meant to help the American people recover from the greatest economic crisis in our nation's history. The New Deal begat the Works Progress Administration which gave birth to what was first called the Resettlement Administration and later called the Farm Securities Administration. The FSA employed many talented photographers, such as Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans, who were given the duty to document the daily lives of impoverished farmers in the rural parts of the US and the out of work and struggling in the nation's cities. Given our current economic crisis I've been wondering what would happen if the United States brought back such programs. How would the photo world change today if photographers were employed again by the government for such widespread documentation?

Some of the most well-known photographs in the history of photography came out of the work of the FSA photographers. Because of the FSA not only were many government documentary projects spawned, but a new way of approaching and thinking about photography as a social tool came about. The work of photographers like Lange, Evans, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn and many others helped prompt photographers the world over to engage en masse in social documentary photography that was focused on exposing the plight of the poor, underserved, and voiceless, with a particular focus on the urban experience. The Photo League of New York and the worker-photographer movement in Europe were just two of the groups that gained traction and inspiration from the work of the FSA photographers.

Below is a small sampling of some of the stark, insightfully penetrating work that was created by the photographers of the FSA. I hope they inspire and spark ideas in your own photographic endeavors as well as provoke reflections on where we were as a nation,  where we are now - and how photography fits into it all.

All the photographs below were generously furnished by the National Archives Still Picture Branch, and are held in the public domain. To see more photographs from the FSA visit the National Archives on the web. (Credits listed below)

                                                  
 

                     


 

                    

                      


 




                 

 

                                


             

                           


 

 Photo Credits Listed in Order of Images:

Migrant Mother, 1936 - Dorthea Lange
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 196261

Children in Democracy, 1940 - Unknown
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 522030 (83-G-41825 local identifier)

Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia, 1935 - Walker Evans
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USF3301-009014-M1

Square Dance, Skyline Farms, Alabama, 1937 – Ben Shahn
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USF33- 006281-M1

City sanitation workman washing streets at Fulton fish market. New York, New York, 1943 – Gordon Parks
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USW3-030288-D

Coosa Valley, Alabama. Interior of FSA temporary home occupied by [African-American] tenant - Irving Rusinow
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 522673 (83-G-44524 local identifier)

Coosa Valley, Alabama. Interior of FSA temporary home occupied by [African-American] tenant - Irving Rusinow
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 522637 (83-G-44487 local identifier)

Youth on Relief - Unknown
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 532122 (119-CAL-59 local identifier)

Dorthea Lange - Courtesy National Archives, photo no. unknown

Boys who salvage coal from the slag heaps at Nanty Glo, Pennsylvania,  1937 – Ben Shahn
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USF33- 006229-M1

Wife and children of a sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas, 1935 - Unknown
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. ARC Identifier: NLR-PHOCO-A-53227(541)

Tap Dancing Class in the gymnasium at Iowa State College, Ames, Iowa, 1942 - Jack Delano
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USW3- 002809-D [P&P]

Easter Morning, 1941 - Russell Lee
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USF34- 038825-D [P&P]

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Nice piece on the FSA. Seems like an idea who's time has come again.

My first job out of school oh-so-many years ago was at Look magazine. Arthur Rothstein, a really nice man and a true gentleman, was the Director of Photography at Look. He interviewed me and hired me on the spot to be the official print dryer at the Look Magazine in-house photo lab.

Unfortunatley, years had passed before I realized who he was, what he had accomplished in his day, and the fact I had unknowingly respected his work when learning about the art & craft of picture-taking when I was a wise, know-it-all art student.

I should be ashamed for not including one of the most famous photographs of the FSA era, taken by Mr. Arthur Rothstein. What a great experience Allan - You're lucky to have known him.

Credits:Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm - Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936

Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 196414

 If done right a massive government sponsored documentary project could potentially be a great idea. In its purest sense it could do a lot of good. Artists could really use the work - The country is full of stories of this crisis that should be documented and remembered. And I'd for one like to see funding brought back to the arts.

John Miller wrote:

Artists could really use the work - The country is full of stories of this crisis that should be documented and remembered

I couldn't agree with this statement more

I've had some requests for more images on this post. Here you go! (credits listed below)

I also recommend following the link to the National Archives in the post to find more images from the Resettlement Administration and the FSA - not to mention thousands of other photographs from our nation's history - most of which are in the public domain

 Photo Credits Listed In Order of Photos:

Girl Reading Newspaper in Restaurant Bar, Tower, Minnesota, 1937 – Russell Lee
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USF33-011292-M5

Cotton Carnival, Memphis Tennessee, 1940 – Marion Post Wolcott
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USF33- 030904-M1

Auto parts shop, Atlanta Georgia, 1936 – Walker Evans
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. LC-USF34008102-A

Dust storm in Amarillo, Texas, 1936 – Arthur Rothstein
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 196517

Union men picketing Macy’s, 1934 – Dorthea Lange
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 196512

Farm Security assistant supervisor and client, FSA office, Taos, 1941 – Irving Rusinow
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 521971

A ‘Briar Patch’ farmer unloading purchased grain at hi…., 1941 – Irving Rusinow
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 521442

I can't stop looking at Lange's shot of the man going into the gas station. There's something about all the advertising signage on a building like that. I'm a huge fan of vintage signage -- but I'm used to what is left of it today, rusted or faded.

I think it's important that the mundane aspects of daily life are documented for future generations. Without them, it's difficult to understand what day-to-day life looked like. I can read thousands of words on the dust bowl in a history text book, but without an image it would be nearly impossible for me to fathom what it looked like back then.

Jim Fisher wrote:

I can't stop looking at Lange's shot of the man going into the gas station. There's something about all the advertising signage on a building like that. I'm a huge fan of vintage signage -- but I'm used to what is left of it today, rusted or faded.

I think it's important that the mundane aspects of daily life are documented for future generations. Without them, it's difficult to understand what day-to-day life looked like. I can read thousands of words on the dust bowl in a history text book, but without an image it would be nearly impossible for me to fathom what it looked like back then.

I'd recommend checking out more of Lange's work, but also more of Walker Evans' work, and Atget's images of Paris. Based on your comment I think you'd really enjoy the work of all three. There are many others too - but for now, this is a start

These images and those by Margaret Bourke-White (who photographed the cover image and photo essay for the very first issue of Life magazine) and W. Eugene Smith, and their ilk were what made me want to be a photographer in the first place.

They're now icons of the era and of photography in general. They date to a time before auto-everything motor-driven pocketable cameras and represent a time when the photographer was (to extend an Ansel Adams comparison) both composer and performer.

They're precursors to the powerful images from the '60s which contributed to the civil rights movement and the end of the VietNam war. Taken together, these images and those from the '60s represent the very finest use of documentary/news photography ahnd should be as treasured and as well known as any of Matthew Brady's Civil War images.

Henry Posner

henryp wrote:

They date to a time before auto-everything motor-driven pocketable cameras and represent a time when the photographer was (to extend an Ansel Adams comparison) both composer and performer.

Henry Posner

I often wish I was born 'back then' and could have seen/been a part of  that world of photography. That time seems to be lost - but perhaps something like the FSA/RA today, during our own economic crisis, could bring some of that back. Maybe.

Firstly, thank you for posting these historical mementos.
 
I’m trying to understand the feelings these images conjure up, for they surely do bring up feelings.
 
Partly, I’m reminded that while things may appear to change on the surface, underneath there is the constant link to a timeless experience.
 
 The girls reading, the auto parts shop that wouldn’t be out of place today in many parts of the country, riding the carousel.
 
And then there is the pride, the suffering and despair.  
 
The other side of me looks to the esthetics of the photos themselves. They seem to exhibit an unforced openness, and in some instances, a deep innocence and I wonder whether these types of photos would even be possible to take today in our crowded and sanitized modern digital era.
 
Perhaps in other parts of the world where people are still unself-conscious (I don’t mean that in a condescending way).

George Aranoff wrote:

Firstly, thank you for posting these historical mementos.
 
I’m trying to understand the feelings these images conjure up, for they surely do bring up feelings.
 
Partly, I’m reminded that while things may appear to change on the surface, underneath there is the constant link to a timeless experience.
 
 The girls reading, the auto parts shop that wouldn’t be out of place today in many parts of the country, riding the carousel.
 
And then there is the pride, the suffering and despair.  
 
The other side of me looks to the esthetics of the photos themselves. They seem to exhibit an unforced openness, and in some instances, a deep innocence and I wonder whether these types of photos would even be possible to take today in our crowded and sanitized modern digital era.
 
Perhaps in other parts of the world where people are still unself-conscious (I don’t mean that in a condescending way).

Thank you for your insightful and beautiful comment

The Errol Morris piece in the NYT is essential reading on the subject. Some of these photos may have been (in fact were obviously) staged, but that doesn't take away the beauty they possess. It's an amazing detective story.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-case-of-the-inappropriate-alarm-clock/

Shawn Chittle wrote:

The Errol Morris piece in the NYT is essential reading on the subject. Some of these photos may have been (in fact were obviously) staged, but that doesn't take away the beauty they possess. It's an amazing detective story.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-case-of-the-inappropriate-alarm-clock/

Errol Morris is always essential reading/viewing. Thanks for the comment and the link!

Wonderful article.  It's interesting to wonder what photographs will be representative in this similar time in history?

Terri Ann wrote:

Wonderful article.  It's interesting to wonder what photographs will be representative in this similar time in history?

It's such a different world - I wonder if there will be any photographs that resonate in nation's collective memory - or if it will just be a series of blurry video clips from the Internet and vague ideas that people try to recall and retell some day. Maybe people will just remember bad blockbuster movies. It will be interesting, and probably sad, to see what defines this point in time in the future. At least that's my opinion. Hopefully I'll be wrong.

Dorethea Lange is one of my heros. When I look into her images - when I gaze into Dorothea's thoughts until all all the political and sociological blathering from my days in Art School in my head goes away - then I see. I see the landscapes, the humanity, the people. No - it's more than seeing - I can feel them in a way that touches me deeply. The story of DL shooting Migrant Mother nearly brings tears to my eyes on a very human and deeply photographic level. That one single image stirs me beyond my ability to convey my feelings in a little text box.  

Photon1 wrote:

Dorethea Lange is one of my heros. When I look into her images - when I gaze into Dorothea's thoughts until all all the political and sociological blathering from my days in Art School in my head goes away - then I see. I see the landscapes, the humanity, the people. No - it's more than seeing - I can feel them in a way that touches me deeply. The story of DL shooting Migrant Mother nearly brings tears to my eyes on a very human and deeply photographic level. That one single image stirs me beyond my ability to convey my feelings in a little text box.  

Your comment and other recent conversations have inspired me. Be on the lookout for a post about Dorthea Lange in the near future.

P.S. I find it funny how "all the political and sociological blathering" that you speak of seems to quiet down the farther away from art school I get too - the more I live life and understand what really is important (to me) on a day to day basis - what gets beyond ideas in books and has a concrete reality. Anyone can postulate, but to be able to put all that aside and truly see something real that has meaning and importance "on a very human and deeply photographic level"  is what I think is the most important. Thank you for sharing your insight here.

Great topic - please do more posts like this. Walker Evans' work means so much to me. The FSA was one of the greatest photography agencies this world will ever know.

More more more - we want more!!!!