Photography’s Role In The New Deal: How the Farm Security Administration introduced America to Americans
“Through these travels and the photographs I got to love the United States more than I could have in any other way.”
— Jack Delano
Between 1935 and 1943, photographers from the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) were assigned to travel across their country to document poverty with the sole purpose of introducing America to Americans. Examining the images produced during this politically driven effort best known as the “New Deal” takes us to precious levels of intimate reality. The purpose of these images was to create awareness and empathy across the entire U.S. population during these harsh times.
Well-known photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, and Arthur Rothstein, among others, were responsible for bringing this important photographic work to life. The images of the New Deal are characterized as a journey in which we are presented to convicts and cotton field workers, miners and mothers, children playing in the streets and interstate migrants of the United States. The valuable thing about this compelling body of work is that each of image carries great weight in terms of “reality”.
On October 24th, 1929, a wave of panic was unleashed over the United States when an unprecedented stock market crash resulted in the loss of more than $11 billion in assets in just two hours. The crash affected Europe and the rest of the world. This day was known as Black Friday, and was the beginning of a series of catastrophic events that led to a global economic fallout.
Thus began the Great Depression, a world-wide economic crisis from which the United States could only recover after its involvement in World War II. During this time, banks stopped extending loans and companies were forced to close. Unemployment rose to 25%, and by 1932 the average savings of the population had been reduced to less than half. By 1933, more than 4000 banks had declared themselves bankrupt.
The Dust Bowl
If economic crash wasn’t enough trouble already, there was a harsh climatic change that had a tremendous impact upon rural populations in the Midwest. Long periods of heat and drought in the 1930s resulted in soil erosion on a vast expanse of the Great Plains (a wide belt of land stretching from Canada to Texas). This area became known as the “Dust Bowl”. Sandstorms raged so hard that inhabitants had no choice but to abandon their land and emigrate, mostly to California. Two and a half million people left their homes during that time.
The New Deal
As a result, agriculture became a top priority on the political agenda. Despite President Hoover’s attempts to support agriculture, people didn’t trust him due to his attitude towards their harsh struggles during the Great Depression. Misery and indigence degenerated into immense social unrest. For the first time, people from all walks of life questioned the economic principles on which their society was based.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who pushed through a series of programs and reforms to deal with the havoc. Roosevelt’s New Deal was an attempt to counteract the collective discouragement. In 1935, the economist Rexford Tugwell encouraged Roosevelt to establish what we now know as the Farm Security Administration. The mission of the FSA was to relocate farmers in the Dust Bowl regions. A historic section was created to document the process, and Tugwell appointed a former Columbia University colleague, Roy Stryker, as its director.
Stryker became a key figure in the project that lasted for about 8 years, and ultimately became the most extensive compilation of social documentary photography of the 20th century. At first, the prime goal behind this effort was to document the situation of farmers with contributions from economists, sociologists, statesmen and other specialists, as well as photographers. Stryker’s goal was to compose an image of rural America at the threshold of the Modern age for the generations to come.
Stryker, an economist, was convinced of the value of photography as the perfect means of preserving economic consequences of the Depression.
Between 1935 and 1943, more than 40 photographers participated in the FSA campaign, but a dozen of them were the main pillars:
- Walker Evans
- Theodor Jung
- Dorothea Lange
- Carl Mydans
- Russell Lee
- Ben Shahn
- Arthur Rothstein
- Jack Delano
- Marion Post Wolcott
- John Vachon
- Gordon Parks
One of the most important tasks of the FSA photographers was to provide images showing the general public the living conditions of people affected by the Dust Bowl conditions. These images not only appeared in magazines, but also in the daily press, government reports and educational materials. They were also the subject of exhibitions and illustrated books, published in large part by the same photographers.
Shortly after establishing the FSA Photographic Documentation Section in 1935, the collection of images was so extensive that it was imperative to design an effective archiving system to enable responses to requests for documentation from magazines, agencies and governmental organizations. In the beginning, the photographs were classified by the state in which they had been taken; after that, by the subject the images documented. In 1942, Stryker commissioned the librarian and photographer Paul Vanderbilt to simplify access to the collection, which included more than 100,000 photos.