How has photography changed the world

How FSA Photography Changed the World

In the center of President Roosevelt's New Deal, a group gathered to tackle the effects of rural poverty in the United States during the Great Depression. However, the Farm Security Administration is not so reminded of the rehabilitation effort as it is of the photos and the team that captured them. Her work not only defined modern photojournalism and painted a picture of the Great Depression, it changed the world.

At the beginning of 2009, the United States and the world fell into an economic downturn. To this day, our society is healing and fighting the effects of the so-called "Great Recession". With a name playing off the last major economic crisis, the 2009 situation pales in comparison to the chaos of the Great Depression. America in the 1930s was in disrepair and the government took great strides to get things back on track.


How it started

The Roosevelt administration was able to get Congress to pass the First New Deal in 1933. By financing infrastructure projects and introducing reforms, the administration hoped to create jobs and relief at the same time during the Great Depression and attempt to bring the American economy back into line. The first New Deal spawned projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Public Works Administration.

In 1935, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was established as part of the "Second New Deal". The main goal of the FSA has been to improve the conditions and resources available to farmers by creating a better environment for agricultural growth. You may not know, but the Great Depression and the Dustbowl Crisis in the central states of the Midwest were linked. Entire farms turned to dust and blew away. Part of the FSA's mission was to prevent this from happening again by improving farming techniques. However, the FSA was best known for its information department.


Roy Stryker, the man who recruited and directed the FSA photographers. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The information department was headed by Roy Stryker, an amateur photographer and government employee who had served in World War I. Stryker wanted to develop an ambitious photo documentation project that would tell the story of the struggles America is facing and the government's efforts to provide relief .

With the "second New Deal" also the works progress management was created, later renamed "work project management" and generally referred to as WPA.


The photographers

During the seven years of the FSA's life, Stryker selected eleven photographers to be documentarists. While their names are easy to spot in the art world today, at that time they were a mix of professionals from different walks of life.


FSA photographer Walker Evans. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

They were Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russel Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon


How it worked

Stryker took the trust in his team and assigned general topics and geographical areas, but ultimately gave the photographers the freedom to document their tasks as they wish.

His agenda was for the photos to support The New Deal's social engineering ideals, essentially propaganda, to convince the public that the government should spend money and help all people who are suffering.


"Dust Bowl Farmers of West Texas Town", recorded in 1937 by Dorathea Lange. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The project was going to be so much more than that. Today it is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of modern documentary photography in the world. Let's take a look at some masterpieces produced by FSA photographers.


Dorothea Lange and migrant mother

One of the best examples of the work of the FSA is Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" image. While traveling through Niporno, California, in 1936, Lange came across a mother and her children in a peasant camp for migrants.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a 1960 interview, Lange told Popular Photography magazine that the mother, later identified as Florence Thompson, had just sold the tires of her car to buy food while the family lived on nearby vegetables and birds who killed the children in their camp.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While the photo titled "Migrant Mother" became the most iconic image of Lange's encounter, a few more images can be seen at the FSA showing Thompson's weathered expression while her children huddle around her.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Gordon Parks and American Gothic

Gordon Parks is one of the most famous FSA photographers, but his résumé of his successes before his death in 2006 went way beyond photography. Parks was a writer, poet, songwriter, and director. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, he left home at the age of 14. Parks eventually ended up in Chicago, where he established himself as a well-known freelance photographer at the age of 25.

Parks' work caught the attention of Roy Stryker, who hired him. One of his most iconic images was created during Park's time at the FSA. The painting, titled "American Gothic," shows a portrait of Ella Watson, a government employee with whom Parks became friends. His staged portrait of her has the subject in direct eye contact with the camera, which is clutching her broom, while the American flag and a mop dominate the background.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The composition of the photograph reflected the famous painting "American Gothic" by Grant Wood and became a symbol of the civil rights history that was slowly taking hold in America. After working with the FSA, Parks became LIFE magazine's first African American employee.


Walker Evans and the roadside near Birmingham, Alabama

In the early 1930s, Walker Evans made a name for himself as a photographer in the northeast. He joined the FSA in 1935 and worked with the administration until 1938. Evan's work has mainly focused on families and their effects on depression.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the years following his work for the FSA, Evans continued his photographic work and later became a writer for TIME magazine, editor of Fortune magazine and director of photography at Yale University. A collection of his work in the Museum of Modern Art entitled "Walker Evans" still travels the country today to be exhibited in museums.


Jack Delano and the women workers of World War II

Jack Delano emigrated from Russia to the USA at the age of nine. A gifted art student, Delano submitted a story to Roy Stryker that he photographed about mining conditions in Pennsylvania. Stryker hired Delano and promoted him to the FSA's payroll.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One of his most iconic images shows women workers in an industrial railway system who have replaced men who were drafted into the war. The women who worked as mops saw each other in their toilet at C. & N.W. Railroad.

Delano's work focused heavily on station and industrial documentation. Delano differs from the other FSA photographers in that by the time he joined the organization, much of the effects of the Depression were gone and World War II was in full swing. Delano stayed with the FSA until it was dissolved in late 1943.


The WPA photographers

The WPA (Work Projects Administration) worked with the FSA and funded a large amount of work across the country. It is said that almost every city in the United States has a park, playground, bridge, or school built during that time as part of an WPA project. Artists, writers, workers, and even actors and musicians were used for ambitious assignments.


A scene from Cincinnati, Ohio photographed by John Vachon. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The photographers who were busy during this period are often overshadowed by the elite FSA team, but their work was just as important. It featured an extensive visual archive of nearly 200,000 photos that are now available online along with the work of the FSA. The scope of the photographs is enormous. Many cities and all federal states are represented. The online catalog is worthwhile, even if you are just looking for photos of places that you are familiar with.


A long-term legacy

We live in a different world now. We can access the huge wealth of knowledge from mobile devices in our pockets at any time. The same devices can take pictures and videos and instantly share that media with the world while receiving news and information from different sources and media.

However, with all the multimedia and visual stimuli we consume, it seems like little of it evokes the same emotions and tells the same stories that the FSA photographers made. The FSA was born out of the government's need to document and trumpet its efforts to convince and show the people that it wasn't just about making things better, it was about success.

The project was more than just a piece of propaganda. It's a story. A story of a time we've passed and an era is over. Not just one of older technologies and different political landscapes, but how we saw the world around us. It's a documentary, it's art, and perhaps most importantly - it's our story.