How one group of photographers saw America’s Great Depression

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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: