Soda jerk flipping ice cream into malted milk shakes. Corpus Christi, Texas, 1939. Photo by Russell Lee.

Frame Houses and a Billboard, Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph by Walker Evans, March 1936.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created in 1937 from an earlier agency named the Resettlement Administration, or RA. The RA had been created by a 1935 executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help struggling farmers and sharecroppers by providing loans, purchasing depleted farmland and resettling destitute families into government-designed communities.

Rexford G. Tugwell, a former Columbia University economics professor, was chosen by Roosevelt to lead the RA, and Tugwell appointed his former student and friend Roy K. Stryker to head the agency’s historical section. Stryker’s mission was to document the hardships and conditions around the country, particularly across the Midwestern states and into California. In all, Stryker’s team of photographers produced over 175,000 black and white negatives and 1,610 color transparencies, as well as several films.

These photos are just a small sampling of their work.


Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Lyman, Polish tobacco farmers near Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Photo by Jack Delano. Published September, 1940.

In a recorded interview with Richard K. Doud, Stryker reflected on the the project, the photographers and some of their more memorable photos of those years. The following excerpts are from: “Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker, 1963-1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.” (For a full transcript of these interviews, follow the link at the end of this page.)

Stryker: Russell was a chemical engineer. Married an artist, painted some, saw a couple of the artists who used cameras very effectively, decided that was what he wanted to do and it would probably be the place to belong. And he took up the camera and turned it in to be a very remarkable man in photography.

Photographer Russell Lee was hired early on in the project and stayed throughout its duration.


Saturday afternoon in London, Ohio, “the main street.” Ben Shahn, Published: Summer, 1938.

“Toward Los Angeles, California.” Photo by Dorthea Lange. Created / published: March, 1937.

Stryker on the FSA photographers:

They were communicating. … some of them had art training. … They were trying to tell us, tell the public, make pictures that were genuine, that recognized peculiar situations whether it be a piece of geography or a human being, and recognized the pertinent things in this particular situation. They had taken the time to check certain facts or investigate, to understand why they were at that place, and what they were going to do. From that point on, ten pictures were taken. Of those ten pictures, if you looked at them — we never evaluated them in terms of set values. We looked at them in terms of what did they have to say about this little group of people, this particular village, this particular dust area, or what. … they were 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.


Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April, 1936. Photo by Arthur Rothstein. PRINT made in the 1930’s.

Arthur Rothstein was the first photographer Roy Stryker hired at the beginning of the FSA photographic project. He later went on to work for Look magazine. This photo of a dust storm is one of Rothstein’s more famous photos.


Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. Photo by Walker Evans. Date Created: 1935 – 1936 (approximate). ADD NY pub. library link

Home of sharecropper Floyd Burroughs, showing washstand in the dog run and view into the kitchen. Photo by Walker Evans. Created / Published: 1935 or 1936.

Floyd Burroughs, sharecropper. Photo by Walker Evans. Alabama, 1935 or 1936.

Walker Evans was a photographer for the Interior Department when he moved over the join the FSA team.


A man goes up the stairs to the “colored” entrance of a movie house on a Saturday afternoon in Belzoni, Mississippi. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Dated as possibly October, 1939. This is a copy of a modern print.

Stryker on Marion Post: Marion Post … came in late. She’d been doing photography for one of the Philadelphia papers, and she came down, and we needed an extra photographer, put her on. And if you look through the file, you’ll find Marion has particularly a great sense of our land, of our terrain and a feeling of people on the land, probably more than some of the others. A great love of people, a great warmth and understanding of people.


Washington, D.C. Government cleaner. Photo by Gordon Parks. August, 1942.

Fur buyer from New Orleans waiting for FSA (Farm Security Administration) supervisor to open the bids at auction sale of muskrats in dancehall on Delacroix Island, Louisiana. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Probably creation / publication date: January, 1941.

A man drinks at a “Colored” water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Photo by Russell Lee, July, 1939.

Graveyard and steel mill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo by Walker Evans. Created / published: November, 1935. (Possibly St. Michael’s Cemetery.)

Stryker on Evans: Walker walks around and all of a sudden sees … the tombstone in the cemetery, the street, the houses. It’s an interesting picture, because you know that he planned it. That’s not “composed” in the sense that that word is so badly used at times, but he hunts till he finds the right viewpoint, the right place to stand. But he’s telling you a sort of social situation.

On Evans’s photos:  … he plans them, he walks around, he looks, and all of a sudden — his is a composed job. He takes time.


Untitled photo, possibly related to: Inhabitants of Marked Tree, Arkansas. Created: October, 1935. Negative has a hole punch made by FSA staff to indicate that the negative should not be printed.

In the earlier years of the project, Stryker would use a hole punch to mark “Killed” images. These were usually variations of frames that had already been selected.


Farm Security Administration photographers (left to right) John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein and Russell Lee with Roy Stryker (right), looking at photographs. Photo by Beaumont Newhall, created / published between 1937 and 1944.

Farm Security Administration photographers (left to right) John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein and Russell Lee with Roy Stryker (right), looking at photographs. Photo by Beaumont Newhall, created / published between 1937 and 1944.

Stryker on photography: There are great pictures today and they are not great tomorrow. There are great pictures today and they are going to be great pictures right on down through time, not because they’ve been used a lot, but because they were great pictures probably and it took many, many people keep sensing the same thing.

About half of the images made for this project have survived to the present day.

In 1942, the FSA morphed into the Office of War Information, or OWI, which operated until 1944.

Sources and acknowledgements:

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/background.html

http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/farm-security-administration-photographs#/?tab=navigation

http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-roy-emerson-stryker-12480