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Documenting America
Introduction | The Photography Project | Photographer Spotlight
The Photography Project in Indiana | Archibald MacLeish's Land of the Free

The Photography Project

photo of Gordon Parks
      Gordon Parks with Helen Wool
      (Library of Congress)

In its early years, the photography project's goal was to document the rural poverty of the Depression. In 1935, Rexford Tugwell appointed his former student, Roy Stryker, to head the Historical Section and assigned him the task of photographing the land and people that the RA and the FSA were trying to help.

The Information Division of the FSA was responsible for providing educational and press information to the public. Under Stryker, the Information Division adopted the goal of "introducing America to Americans," so Stryker hired photographers to document the plight of the poor. Stryker sought photographs that "related people to the land and vice versa" because those photographs supported the idea that poverty could be changed through reform. Stryker's plan was to photograph migrant workers in a way that would tell a story about their daily lives, and to achieve this, he assigned his photographers various themes. For example, [Dorothea Lange] focused on the subject matter of cooking, sleeping, praying and socializing.

Esther Bubley
  Esther Bubley, by John Vachon (Wikimedia Commons)

Other photographers of the Farm Security Administration included Charlotte Brooks, Esther Bubley, John Collier, Jr., Marjory Collins, Harold Corsini, Jack Delano, Sheldon Dick, Arnold Eagle, Walker Evans, Theodor Jung, [Russell Lee], Howard Lieberman, Edwin Locke, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, [Marion Post Wolcott], Martha McMillan Roberts, Edwin and Louise Rosskam, Arthur Rothstein, Richard Saunders, Ben Shahn, and [John Vachon]. A sampling of their portraits, many done by other FSA photographers can be found at: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/fsachtml/fsap.html.

photo of Sheldon Dick
    Sheldon Dick, by Janina Lester
   (Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of their exemplary and striking efforts, the FSA photographers are credited with the development of documentary photography. In later years the photography project was expanded to include depictions of life all over the United States and in 1942 Stryker's unit of the FSA was transferred to the Office of War Information, at which point the photographers focused on mobilization during World War II.

Although the FSA photographs were being filed for future use, there was a danger that critics of the agency would have them destroyed. In order to find a safe home for the photographs, Stryker transferred the collection to the Library of Congress, after seeking approval from President Roosevelt himself.

The Library of Congress has now placed the photographs online. The Web site America from the Depression to World War II - Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945, is at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/.

Roy Stryker
  Roy Stryker (Wikimedia Commons)

Roy Stryker

Stryker was born in 1893 in Great Bend, Kansas and grew up on a farm in Montrose, Colorado. After serving in the infantry in World War I, he went to Columbia University where he studied economics. After graduating in 1924, he stayed to teach at the invitation of his mentor, Rexford Tugwell. They collaborated on a book entitled American Economic Life, which made extensive use of photographs to complement the text. He used these photographs to illustrate his economics lectures and writings, and they became powerful teaching tools that brought economic theories to life for his students.

As a member of Franklin Roosevelt's Brains Trust, Rexford Tugwell organized the Resettlement Administration, which later became known as the Farm Security Administration, and provided rehabilitation loans and resettlement opportunities to farmers impoverished by the Depression. In 1935, Stryker followed Tugwell to Washington and was appointed head of the Information Division, where he set up the photography project.

Jack Delano
  Jack Delano
  (Library of Congress)

Stryker was an extremely talented at getting the best out of his photographers. He briefed them on their assignments before being sending them out, giving the photographers detailed instructions. Stryker did not tell his photographers how to shoot their photos, but he did give them lists of themes, such as "baseball", "signs", and "farming." He also made sure that magazines such as Life and Look had access to FSA photographs. FSA photographs also appeared at the World's Fair in 1939.

After the war, Stryker resigned and went to work for Standard Oil's public relations documentary project from 1943 to 1950. This project required the documentation of the corporation's operations in the field and other activities related to the oil industry. By the time the project was completed, some 67,000 photographs had been produced. The collection is now at the Photographic Archives at the University of Louisville. From 1950 to 1952, Stryker worked to establish the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, a project of the University of Pittsburgh designed to document the rebirth of Pittsburgh into a modern urban city. After Stryker resigned from the project, the Pittsburgh Photographic Library continued in operation for several more years. Stryker help negotiate the transfer of the approximately 18,000 photographs to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in 1960.

After leaving the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, Stryker directed a documentation project at the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, as well as occasionally consulting and teaching classes on photojournalism at the University of Missouri. He died in Grand Junction, Colorado in 1975.