Research point :The FSA Project

+ Read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis.
Core resources:MakingSense.pdf

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers , within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this ? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects ?

Visit the FSA online gallery on the Library of Congress website and refer to their FSA catalogue if necessary :

Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed to deal with the effects of the Great Depression. Tenant farmers had been adversely affected by the recession and were facing great hardships .The Resettlement Administration , later renamed the Farm Security Administration , was set up in 1935 as part of the bureaucracy aimed at resettling stricken rural workers. Walker Evans , Dorothea Lange , Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks were amongst about 20 photographers hired by Roy Stryker to obtain evidence of how the Depression was effecting the rural population. Around 170,000 images were taken.

The photographic evidence was essential to help gain public support for the New Deal legislation and “Stryker once bragged about his ability to shape views of the depression” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 281) thus revealing an obvious political agenda . Furthermore the photographers “were government employees , subject to a wide range of political pressures” (Jeffrey , 1981 , pg. 169). As head of the Historical Department Stryker additionally “set about formulating the work of the FSA . He set an official documentary style , held briefings and developed shooting scripts for assignments” (Dickie , 2009 , pg. 48).” Additionally “the work of the FSA photographers was freely available to any publisher who wanted to use it” (Badger, 2007, p.g 72) the images were seen in illustrated magazines , the press and Department of Agriculture brochures and portrayed “ a grim picture of conditions” (Jeffrey , 1981 , pg. 167).

Walker Evans had little time for “Stryker’s assignment guidelines” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 282) causing frequent clashes between the two. Influenced by Atget his intricate and symbolic images of streets, signs , barber shops and cluttered rooms are full of the detail of everyday life but “ unlike the Surrealist photographers ,who found Atget’s work full of mystery and the uncanny , Evans located there a reserved and courtly melancholy about the transitions of modern life” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 282). In 1936 Evans , on leave from the FSA and accompanied by writer James Agee , travelled to the Deep South on an investigative assignment for Fortune Magazine. The magazine never used the project images but they were published in 1941 as a book Let us Now Praise Famous Men .

An iconic image of Allie Mai Burroughs , the wife of a debt ridden share cropper , prematurely aged at just 27 years epitomised the plight of the dispossessed. One of four frames taken by Evans this particular one shows a non-smiling “ irritated Allie Mae , a troubled victim of both the Depression and the camera’s burrowing eye” (htpp:// Interestingly American Photographs , published in 1938 , included one of the other images taken by Evans showing a more agreeable Allie Mae , which “thinly disguised as ‘Annie Mae Gudger’ in the text , exemplified his approach to picture making” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 282). Manipulation comes in many guises and Evan’s choice was simply one all photographers make in order to create meaning and context. I am sure Evans was fully aware of the connotations of each image and used them accordingly to what was needed to be conveyed but was this exploitation and did Evan’s really take advantage of the Burroughs family misfortune? I find that a difficult question to answer.

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Allie Mai Burroughs . Walker Evans

Dorothea Lange was already a committed documentarian of social inequalities when she joined the FSA photography team. Her famous image Migrant Motheris so powerful that it has had a a life of its own , transcending the documentary to mean whatever anyone looking at it wants it to mean” (Badger, 2007, p.g 77) . Lange herself felt the image was too impassioned and would be regarded as piece of propaganda , ironically it was just the sort of image the FSA needed to convince the public to fully support its measures. Furthermore both she and Stryker ” believed that photographs could bring about change” ( Dickie , 2009 , p.g 43) . Lange took six frames of her subject , Florence Owens Thompson , “ moving in closer all the time , until she focused only upon the mother’s face and arms , with the two children moving their heads away” (Badger ,2007 , p.g 77) but “only this particular picture caught the exact moment that kindles the emotional impact ” (Stepan, 2015 p.g 70) . The image , which was also re-touched to remove a flaw, became an iconic symbol of poverty and powerlessness but “though powerful , Migrant Mother is not typical of Lange’s work” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 283) and I do not believe Lange deliberately set out to exploit her subject . However “the photo Migrant Mother , with its obvious symbolic dimension , stands over and apart from her , is not her , has an independent life history” (Bolton, 1992,p.g 315) , the image as an icon gaining greater significance than Thompson as an individual.

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Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange

Russell Lee travelled to Iowa to document stricken sharecroppers. It is unusual for documentary photographers to just take one frame and the FSA required their photographers to hand over all their assignment pictures. Lee’s definitive image Christmas Dinner in Iowa was carefully planned with small children gathered around a table and an empty place. An emotive and powerful scene. Lee , recalling this time there years later claimed the farmer , Earl Pauley , was widowed. However the FSA records also contain images taken by Lee of Pauley’s wife ,very much alive , “ this visual evidence offers a much more reliable guide to the photographer’s original intent than the artist’s recollections recorded decades after the fact ” ( Curtis . p.g 13 ). Lee , as an FSA photographer , needed touching and influential images , which he obtained by directing scenes “that were conceived almost as a tableaux” (Jeffrey ,1997,p.g 264) Interestingly not all of the FSA photographs were recorded in B&W , Lee “used Kodachrome to photograph in Pie Town , New Mexico , a rural small town selected by Roy Stryker and Lee because they saw it as exemplifying frontier virtues , like self-reliance” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 285).

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Arthur Rothstein. The Dust Bowl devastated great areas of the Plains causing drought and crop failure . Rothstein took a single shot of Art Coble and his sons at their homestead as they stood enveloped in swirling sand . The image was published and seen across America causing the emotive impact the FSA desired. However Rothstein “was accused of fakery” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 285) when it was discovered an image of a steer’s skull taken against the backdrop of parched earth had been moved. The dust , parched land , and bone dry skull with its connotation of death were powerful metaphors of the awful predicament of the beleaguered inhabitants who lived in areas affected by the Dust Bowl.

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Arthur Rothstein

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The FSA photographers had nothing to gain personally by exploiting their subjects but they certainly manipulated the truth in order to obtain the evidence required for their employer. As there was no malice intended , only the need to gain support for legislation aimed at bringing relief to the stricken individuals they encountered , therefore can the work of the FSA photographers be really considered unethical?


Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography How photography has changed our lives , London , UK :Quadrille Publishing

Bolton , R. (ed) , 1992 . The Context of Meaning:Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge , MA :MIT Press

James Curtis. Making Sense of Documentary Photography’
Core resources:MakingSense.pdf

Dickie Chris , (2009) . Photography The 50 most influential photographers in the world , London , UK : A & C Black

Jeffrey Ian , (1981) . Photography A Concise History , London , UK :Thames & Hudson

Jeffrey Ian , (1997 ) .The Photo Book , London , UK : Phaidon Press

Stepan Peter (ed) , (2005). Icons of Photography The 20th Century , London , UK : Prestel

Warner Marien Mary. (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, London, UK : Laurence King
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