1930's Depression Era

The Farm Security Administration (F.S.A) produced some of the most memorable and iconic images of the 20th century. Between 1935 and 1942, the F.S.A headed by Roy E. Stryker, employed an exceptional team of photographers including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, John Vachon and Carl Mydans.

"Though it began as a government entity called the Resettlement Administration, what we now know as the Farm Security Administration was launched as part of the Department of Agriculture 70 years ago, in 1937. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the FSA's team of photographers created an indelible portrait of rural America during the Great Depression, an archive that includes one of the most well known images ever, Dorothea Lange's 1936 photo "Migrant Mother." -PopPhoto.com

In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Resettlement Administration (R.A) as part of his 'New Deal' strategy to cope with the Great Depression. The R.A project was set up to bring financial aid to thousands of rural communities affected by the 'Dust Bowl' and competition from mechanical agricultural practices. In 1937 the R.A was incorporated into the Department of Agriculture and became the Farm Security Administration.

Over a period of seven years, thousands of images were taken by this remarkable team of photographers, chosen by Stryker for their humanist concerns. These photographers, being at the same time journalists, social commentators and artists, worked with a clear political and social purpose. The methods they employed: the careful arrangement of subject matter; the portrayal of sitters as 'victims'; and the adherence to predetermined points of view, were intended to marshal public sympathy. They deliberately utilized the persuasive power of photography to shape public opinion and affect social change. This calculated approach to image making raised important questions about the relationship between 'truth' and photography.
Ultimately, this enduring pictorial record reflects the hardship and heroism of the Great Depression, and the lives and beliefs of the image makers their subjects and their audience. This remarkable photographic project, which includes some of the best known photographic images: Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, Walker Evans' portraits of the Burroughs family and Arthur Rothstein's Fleeing a Dust Storm, is a landmark in the history of documentary photographic practice.

Jack Delano (1914 - )
Delano's interest in photography began when, as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he began photographing in Pennsylvania and New York City. His work won him a traveling scholarship to study in Europe. When he returned, he earned money as a commercial photographer. In 1939, he submitted a proposal to the Federal Arts Program to photograph the coal miners in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. FSA director Roy Stryker liked the project that resulted, but he was not able to hire Delano until Arthur Rothstein left the agency in 1940. Stryker said of him, "Jack was the artist, and being an artist would say, 'What one picture could I take that would say Vermont?'"

Delano photographed extensively in the South and New England, where he covered Portuguese fishermen and the beginnings of the war build-up at the Pratt-Whitney airplane factory. A 1941 assignment took him to Puerto Rico. After the war he became director of the Puerto Rican government's radio and television network. He continued to photograph, receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 1981. He also composed symphonic music and wrote and designed books for children.

Walker Evans (1903 - 1975)
Evans, who had the title of senior information specialist, is universally regarded as the premier photographic artist among the FSA staff. In the 1920s, he led the expatriate's life in Paris, where he was influenced by the photography of Eugene Atget and the novels of Gustave Flaubert. His tenure with the agency was short and his relationship with Stryker, stormy. Evans wanted autonomy and artistic control. In later years, he insisted he had never embraced the FSA's social objectives, considering them incompatible with making art. Stryker wanted more production and the courtesy of being informed of where Evans was and what he was doing. Although Stryker called Evans his "problem child," he also "recognized the exceptional quality" of his photographs and was proud to have them in the collection.

Evans took a leave from the agency in the summer of 1936 to photograph sharecropper families in Hale County, Alabama. This work, published in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was the high point of his FSA tenure. The next year Stryker fired Evans, citing budgetary problems. After freelancing, he was hired in 1943 by Time magazine and in 1945 by Fortune. He had numerous exhibitions of his photography in museums and galleries including several at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From 1965 to his death in 1975 he taught photography at Yale University. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1973.

Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965)
While also enjoying a reputation as an artist, Lange is most renowned for the humanistic qualities of her photographs. She began her career assisting portrait photographers but went on to study with Arnold Genthe and Clarence White, two important photographers from the early decades of the century. Lange started on an around-the-world trip, but ran out of money and settled in San Francisco in 1918. She set up shop as a studio portraitist, but in the early 1930s began to photograph the strikes and bread lines caused by the Great Depression. The University of California sociologist Paul Taylor hired her to photograph illustrations for his reports on the plight of migrant workers. Later, they married and continued to collaborate on projects, including the book American Exodus. Rexford Tugwell saw Lange's work and called it to the attention of Stryker, who hired her in July 1935. In March 1936, on her way home from an extended photographing campaign in Arizona and New Mexico, she stopped at a camp for pea pickers in Nipoma, California, and made six exposures of Florence Thompson and her children. One of them, later entitled Migrant Mother, became the quintessential icon of the Great Depression and one of the most frequently published photographs of all time.
When the FSA project ended, Lange photographed for the Office of War Information, including an extended project on Japanese Americans who were interned in camps in California during World War II. She freelanced for Life and other magazines, producing photographic essays in a variety of countries such as Ireland, Venezuela, and Egypt. She collaborated with John Szarkowski, director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, on a retrospective exhibition of her work, which opened not long after her death in 1965.

Russell Lee (1903 - 1986)
Around 1929, Lee abandoned a successful career as a chemical engineer to study art at Woodstock in upstate New York. He first used the camera to make studies for his paintings, but soon discovered he liked telling photographic stories more than he did painting. His early work included projects on bootleg mining in Pennsylvania and on the Father Devine cult. When a staff photographer quit, Stryker hired Lee to freelance a story on a homestead housing project in New Jersey. Stryker liked the photographs so much he hired Lee full time. Lee, who stayed with the FSA from 1936 to its demise in 1943, was extremely prolific. He embraced Stryker's objective of documenting the American way of life, and his pictures show a wide range of economic and cultural activities. His most concentrated project was on the homesteading community of Pie Town, New Mexico, which he and his wife, Jean, decided to investigate "because the name of the place struck their fancy."

After doing aerial photography for the Army during World War II, Lee worked for Stryker again on the Standard Oil Company documentary project. He taught at the University of Missouri and the University of Texas at Austin.

Arthur Rothstein (1915 - 1985)
As a student at Columbia University, Rothstein founded a campus photography club and also did photographic work for Roy Stryker. He was the first staffer Stryker hired and was given the job of setting up the darkroom facilities and purchasing the necessary cameras and equipment. Within a year, however, he took one of the most famous and one of the most controversial photographs in the FSA's history. His 1936 photograph of a farmer and his two sons in Cimerron County made the Oklahoma panhandle the visual symbol of the dust storms that devastated farmers in several Plains states. On the same trip, he photographed several frames of a steer's skull in the badlands of South Dakota. A comparison of the images showed that he picked up the skull and moved it to a patch of cracked earth to make it more symbolic of the drought. Opponents in the press and Congress seized on this to attack the agency's credibility, calling the picture a fake. The incident caused minor embarrassment to President Roosevelt when The Fargo Forum broke the story as he was campaigning in the Dakotas.

In 1940, Rothstein became a staff photographer for Look, magazine. He photographed for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in China during World War II, then returned to Look, where he became director of photography. When the magazine stopped publication in 1971, he became picture editor of Parade magazine. He also taught for many years at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and was a judge for the Pulitzer Prizes in Photography.

Ben Shahn (1898 - 1969)
During the 1920s and early 1930s, Shahn earned a national reputation as a painter and graphic designer who used his art to promote social justice and political change. Among his most famous paintings was an indictment of the 1927 execution of two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In 1935 he began working as an artist for the Resettlement Administration. His friend and former roommate Walker Evans recommended him to Stryker, who hired him as a staff photographer.

Shahn was never a great photographic technician, but his artistic eye and his deep humanism made his photographs powerful and visually interesting. In addition, he frequently used the camera as a sketchbook to record people and settings that he would turn into drawings and paintings. He did little photography after leaving the FSA in 1938, but The Photographic Eye of Ben Shahn, a collection of his work, was published by Harvard University Press in 1975.

"Unlike Walker Evans, Ben Shahn had no problem with propaganda on behalf of what he considered a worthy cause. "Look Roy," he reportedly told Stryker about a proposed series of photographs on the Dust Bowl, "you're not going to move anybody with eroded soil, but the effects this eroded soil has on a kid who looks starved, this is going to move people."" -oldstatehouse.com

John Vachon (1914 - 1975)
Vachon was a graduate student in English literature when Stryker hired him and gave him the lowly title of "assistant messenger," purportedly because he had no ambitions to become a photographer. After a year of looking at the staff's work, however, Vachon persuaded Stryker to let him document scenes in the District of Columbia that would make a contribution to the collection. After the Washington Post published some of his photographs, Stryker began to give him assignments. While on an extended campaign in the Plains states, Vachon "decided that he would photograph only what pleased or astonished him, and in the way he wanted to see it."
After serving in World War II, he joined the staff of Look. In 1974 his proposal to photograph North Dakota during the winter earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Marion Post Walcott (1910 - 1990)
Wolcott discovered photography when a friend gave her a Rolliflex while she was studying at the University of Vienna in the early 1930s. After teaching in upstate New York, she became a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Through a lecture at the Photo League, she became friends with the photographer Ralph Steiner, who introduced her to Stryker. He hired her in 1938, sending her to photograph West Virginia coal miners as her first assignment. Post Wolcott is known for the beauty of her landscapes and her pictures of African Americans. One of her most famous photographs shows an African American man climbing the outside staircase of a movie theater to the "Colored Only" entrance.

In 1941, not long after her wedding, she left the FSA and devoted herself to raising her children. She took relatively few photographs until 1976, when she resumed photographing and became interested in color.

© 1999 Indiana University Art Museum