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Transcript of "Learning from the FSA Collection" (Carl Fleischhauer)

Documenting America, 1935-1943: The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photo Collection

The one hundred and seventy thousand photographs in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographic Collection at the Library of Congress have been a treasure trove for researchers for more than sixty years. The pictures were created by a special documentary unit that existed in a succession of three U.S. government agencies during the latter half of the Great Depression of the 1930s, continuing and finally concluding its work during the early 1940s, as the United States prepared for and - after the attack on Pearl Harbor - entered the Second World War.

Some researchers have mined the collection to illustrate books or television documentaries. While others have studied the collection and related materials in order to gain insights into the historical period, to learn how photographers did their work, or to track cultural changes in the nation.

How might you explore the collection online? What could you learn? You can do what many have done before: search for and look at the photographs, one at a time. Type in a likely keyword - washing, erosion, mules, barns - or "street" - that noun brings forth thousands of images. Here are thumbnails of the first few, which take us to a handful of cities, including a street in the mill town of Amoskeag, New Hampshire, in 1936 and to 61st Street in New York City - in this 1938 image by the well known photographer Walker Evans. And that's another way you could explore, type in a search for the name Evans - or for the other deservedly famous photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Marion Post Wolcott - who made this color image of a four-mule team pulling a fertilizer spreader in Georgia.

But the online system not only helps you find individual images - it can also help you find groups of related pictures. The FSA photographers often approached their subjects in the manner of a photojournalist - spend some time with a subject building "coverage" - producing a series of images of, say, a family, farming operation, or a community - like Gee's Bend.

Gee's Bend was a tenant farming community on a former plantation in south-central Alabama. If you look at what the metadata tells you about this picture, you learn that Arthur Rothstein took the photo in April 1937. That was his second visit - there are other photos dated in February. At Gee's Bend, the farm tenants who rented land lived in log houses and used mules to pull their plows. On weekdays, the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church served as a classroom for the community's school. Work in the home included quiltmaking.

Let's use this series as a springboard for a little extra research about the context within which these pictures were made. The 3x5 card from the old catalog in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library tells us that Rothstein's photographs were made when the photo unit was part of the Resettlement Administration, an independent New Deal agency that relocated some farmers to more productive land and provided aid to others in the form of small loans. It was the home for the photo unit beginning in 1935.

Rothstein's 1937 trips to Gees Bend took place during a period of change for the Resettlement Administration. In January, the agency had been moved into the Department of Agriculture and in July, an act of congress shifted its functions -including the photo unit-to the newly created Farm Security Administration- the FSA.

It turns out that there are some connections between that legislation and the pictures of Gee's Bend. Let's play history detective and go beyond the photos. One good place to look is in the Roy Stryker Papers at the University of Louisville, available on microfilm. Stryker was the head of the photo unit and much of his correspondence is included in the papers collection.

Here's a letter he sent to Rothstein on February 5, 1937, with a political spin. Stryker wrote that the agency needs more photos of tenant farmers quote, for the Administrator - the head of the agency - to take to Congress, end quote. Congress was at that time considering legislation about farm tenancy, the legislation that would create the FSA later that year. Will Alexander, the agency's Administrator, had been called to testify and pictures were needed for him to take to the hearing. Stryker's letter to the photographer requests certain categories of pictures, quote - Find families that are fairly representative of the conditions in the tenancy areas, then take quite a series of pictures on each of these families, showing the house, the people, the children, the farm, the buildings and fences, etc.

But Stryker's letters to photographer Arthur Rothstein aren't just about the political process. Stryker is also interested in reaching the public. Here's another February letter he sent to Rothstein - and this one identifies the community. Stryker had just met a journalist who had told him about Gee's Bend, quote - the most primitive setup he has ever heard of. "We could do a swell story," Stryker continued, "one that LIFE [magazine] will grab." So Rothstein made his photos and sent them to Washington.

What happened next? By the end of 1937, the FSA had initiated some programs in Gee's Bend to improve housing and provide other support. By 1939, there had been enough progress for the FSA to send the photographer Marion Post Wolcott to take the "after" pictures like this one showing a new barn and the delivery of fertilizer. And shots of the modern classroom for the children in a brand new school building. And for families, there was a new cooperative store.

Meanwhile, although LIFE magazine did not pick up the story, the New York Times did in August 1937, extensively illustrated with Rothstein's photographs. As it turns out, the Times article was not the only indicator of interest in Gee's Bend from the outside. In 1941, for example, there was a New Deal folklore collecting trip, and two of the sound recordings from that trip are included in the Library of Congress online collection "Voices from the Days of Slavery."

The quiltmakers of Gee's Bend have also come into the public eye from time to time. These photographs by Carol Highsmith date from 2010, but in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights movement, the community's quilters were central to the Freedom Quilting Bee. In 1969, Calvin Trillin wrote about the quiltmakers in the New Yorker. In the early 2000s, Gee's Bend quilts were featured in museum exhibitions and, in 2006, they were reproduced on U.S. postage stamps.

By 2008, a description of Gee's Bend, illustrated in part by FSA photographs, graced the pages of Wikipedia. All of this "what happened next" history enriches our experience when we look back at Arthur Rothstein's photographs, and at their representation of community life in 1937.

For contrast with this Depression-era story, let's look at a wartime-period series, from 1943, when the photographic unit had moved to its third and last government home: the Office of War Information. The photographer John Collier shot this series in Trampas, one of New Mexico's venerable Hispanic communities. Trampas is home to an adobe church built between 1760 and 1776 -before New Mexico's statehood- in fact, before the establishment of the United States itself.

This was familiar territory to Collier-although his family was from Northern California, the Colliers spent time in Taos, New Mexico. John Collier Senior - the photographer's father - was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Roosevelt administration, which also connected Collier the photographer to the region, home to a number of Indian pueblos and reservations. Letters back and forth between Collier (shown here) and Roy Stryker (the boss back in Washington) suggest that the New Mexico documentation was the photographer's idea.

The Trampas series is one of several from the war years that featured "nationalities" - American ethnic groups whose photographs could be used in publications to build good will in Europe. This letter from Collier reassures Stryker that the photography of the region "seems very needed material for an overseas release." In Trampas, Collier documented both a family -headed by Juan Lopez - and the town itself.

A careful look at the photographs reveals some things about how Collier did his work. Here is Collier's photograph of Lopez's wife Maclovia spinning wool. Notice the bright and even beam of light - not from a real fire. Collier's flashgun on the floor, just outside the frame, mimicked the light from the fireplace. Flash illumination was critical to successful photography indoors. Here, three generations of the Lopez family have gathered in the same living room but this time the light comes from above. In the upper left, we can see that Collier fastened his flashgun to the picture frame. It would be another 25 years before electronic strobe lights were widely available. In another flashlit photo of the Lopez boys washing up for supper, we can see where Collier stashed his supply of bulbs, which were used one bulb at a time.

Collier's use of flash became a sore point back in Washington. Roy Stryker sent him a letter complaining about the photographs at the dinner table, quote -the flash has made it look like brilliant electrical illumination, he wrote adding, quote -the burning [kerosene] lamp looks a little out of place.

Well, flash or no flash, this photograph does show a mother and daughter working on school homework...and let me use this image to show another way to explore this photo series. Go to the about page - the metadata for this photograph. Look for the link with the wording "browse neighboring items by call number." That link will take you to groups of pictures organized by file numbers - in effect, the way the actual photo negatives are filed. Numbers were assigned when the negatives came in and this often (but not always) keeps shooting sets together.

Notice that there are a few pictures marked "untitled" - these are images from negatives that had not been printed as 8x10s back in the 1940s. The Library has a special project to add titles to these photographs. Without titles, you won't find them in a text-based search. Here's an "untitled" example: a scene of men sitting beside a wood stove in a store, with bags of grain in the background.

Digging into this numerical filing system can give you a better sense of the photographer's process in the field, which in turn provides a richer sense of the photographs as historical documents. And looking through the whole series can give you a better understanding of the circumstances of life for families like the Lopezes and for communities like Las Trampas.

We at the Library of Congress are very proud to have the FSA-OWI photo collection. It is wonderfully broad and deep and we think you will be rewarded by exploring it. Thank you.

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  June 4, 2013
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