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Farm Security Administration photographs


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Many thousands of black-and-white photographs produced between 1935 and 1943 to document and promote New Deal programs and policies, particularly those benefiting agriculture. Most report on life in rural and small town America. Under the Resettlement Administration (RA) until 1937 when that agency became the Department of Agriculture's Farm Security Administration, the program that commissioned the work numbers among the federal art projects that aided visual artists during the Depression of the 1930s. Altogether, about twenty photographers worked for the RA/FSA. The resounding success of the photography program must in large part be credited to its director, Roy Emerson Stryker (1893–1975). He hired many of the country's most able photographers, sent them on assignment, and recognized the aesthetic component of their work. Although Stryker was an economist, even before he became a government administrator he had understood the importance of visual documents in making persuasive arguments for economic or social policies. He knew that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's allies could better support their case for government relief with photographs that revealed the needs of the country's rural citizens. In a larger context, the agency hoped that its photography project would help to unify the country by promoting awareness of its citizens' varied circumstances. The program's earliest photographers included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn. Jack Delano (1914–97), Russell Lee (1903–86), Gordon Parks, John Vachon (1914–75), and Marion Post Wolcott numbered among later recruits. Except for Evans, who for the most part continued to use an 8 × 10-inch view camera on a tripod, the program's photographers generally embraced the recently introduced handheld camera, which permitted flexibility and speed. To a large extent, FSA images still epitomize the Depression era. Perhaps the best known is Lange's “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” (1936), depicting a despairing woman with her three needy and joyless little children. This and hundreds of other iconic representations of American life across the continent remain a salient historical record of these years, providing evidence of hardship, hard-won successes, human dignity, and the endurance of grace among the nation's struggling populace.

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