America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945
FSA-OWI Photographs, 1935-1945, includes black and white photographs of rural and small-town America and scenes of the World War II mobilization effort. Many now-famous photographers created these pictures while employed by a Depression-era government program. Color photographs are another component of this collection.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
- Documenting America: Photographers on Assignment
- Portrait Sampler of FSA Photographers
- Selected FSA-OWI Images: Popular Requests and Staff Selections
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Related Collections and Exhibits
- American Life Histories, 1936-1940
- California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties, 1938-1940
- Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers, and Broadcasters During World War II
Recommended additional sources of information.
There are currently no other resources for this collection
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
Black and white and color images may be searched separately or together. See the combined search page for a description of what is searched.
The black and white images in the collection represent negatives made into prints as well as "Killed" images, those not selected for printing. "Killed" images have no captions and therefore cannot be searched. To see these images, search for your subject. On the bibliographic page of a captioned image, select "Display Images with Neighboring Call Numbers" to see related "Killed" images. See Materials in the Collection and Access to Them for more information/
The Subject Index in the black and white images has a state designation before the subject term. Use this index for examples of subject terms, then search by keyword to find all instances in which the term appears. Searching by place or topic will be more successful than searching by a specific date.
FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945 contains over 71,000 photographs that comprise an extensive pictorial record of American social life during the turbulent decade between 1935 and 1945. The scope of this record ranges from the southern to the western United States to Puerto Rico and from rural to urban conditions.
The collection also demonstrates the rise of documentary photography as a medium for investigating and communicating about social issues. The Special Presentation, "Documenting America: Photographers on Assignment", can serve as a point of departure for investigation into the FSA/OWI specifically and into photography and the documentary form in general.
The Great Depression
Photographs in the collection bring home the reality of the hardships of the Great Depression, from the squalor of Hoovervilles and shantytowns to the barren wastes of the Dust Bowl. Search Hoovervilles, shantytown, camps, squatters, and dwellings for pictures that record the wide-spread poverty of the Depression. Search dust, sand, and erosion for evidence of the cataclysmic environmental changes that destroyed farms and contributed to many people's distress during the Depression.
Dorothea Lange's photograph popularly called "Migrant Mother" (right) captures the worry and desperation as well as the strength of Depression women who migrated to California with their families. Many of the photographs in the collection tell stories of women trying to hold their families together. Have your students investigate the trials of migration by searching on refugee, family, and migrant.
Many of these photographs tell their stories of migration through lengthy captions as well as visual information. As an extended project, students can do research in Voices from the Dust Bowl and other outside sources to find out if a photographer's caption is a realistic or biased account of migration. They can also write a short story based on a photograph and on their research.
The Forgotten Man
Virtually the entire collection may be seen as a study of and tribute to people neglected by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians who focused almost solely on political history. These photographs express a renewed interest in the "Forgotten Man" and provide a starting point for understanding the beliefs of the people who embraced and recreated that figure in the thirties and forties. Projects and discussion may be based on a comparison of how different people and organizations defined and used the "Forgotten Man" during this era. One example is found in the Special Presentation of a series by Gordon Parks documenting the life of a Washington D.C. charwoman.
Looking at photographs from the collection or at the Parks series with your students, consider the following questions:
- What makes someone a "Forgotten Man"? Why is he/she celebrated?
- What do Parks's photographs tell us about Mrs. Watson? Why did Parks take so many photographs of Mrs. Watson?
- Why might the FSA/OWI photographers have been interested in the "Forgotten Man"?
- Who else was interested in the "Forgotten Man" during this decade? Beyond this decade?
In addition to the trials of the Depression, minorities dealt with discrimination. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers like these were evicted when Southern farm owners used cutbacks in production as an opportunity to discriminate against African Americans. In 1932, unemployment among African Americans was about 50 percent, twice the national average.
In the West, minorities had a hard time getting what little work there was, when produce growers favored native-born workers. Members of minority groups such as this Chinese man were forced to migrate from one temporary, low-paying job to the next. Some workers had to support their families on as little as $1.50 a week. Search negro, Spanish-American, Mexican, Filipino, and Chinese for pictures depicting the minority experience of the Depression.
The decade between 1935 and 1945 saw much progress in organized labor, including the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Together, these acts recognized the right of workers to join unions and the right to collective bargaining and required employers to deal fairly with majority-supported unions. The tremendous growth of organized labor was reflected in the tremendous tensions of 1937, when a wave of strikes, some resulting in violence, swept through the country.
Search union, CIO, strike, and picket for pictures illustrating labor organization and unrest. Ask students to look for newspaper articles on strikes and union meetings in Charles Todd's Scrapbook from Voices from the Dust Bowl. Then have them write their own article to go with a photograph from the collection.
The New Deal
Students can observe the effects of New Deal relief work by comparing pictures of makeshift shelters and tent cities with resettlement camps and showcase housing. Search tent, migrant camp, FSA, and labor camp for examples such as these. Or search Hightstown and El Monte for pictures of those model New Deal communities.
Search CCC for scenes such as this one depicting the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program designed to preserve the country's natural resources while also creating new jobs.
World War II
The collection portrays the war from the perspective of the home-front, including the evacuation of 110,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps. After Pearl Harbor, many Americans feared that Japan would attack the West Coast next, aided by Japanese American spies. Although there was no record of spying, political pressure, fueled by a long-standing prejudice against Japanese Americans on the West Coast, resulted in the internment of resident aliens and citizens of Japanese ancestry. Families like this one were sent from their homes on the West Coast to camps in inland California, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and even as far away as Arkansas. Search evacuation and Santa Anita (the name of a camp) for a fuller view of the hardships of this process.
Search soldiers and war for other pictures of war-time activities on the home front.
Or learn more about women in the war effort by searching employment, factory, and laborers for pictures from Color Photographs from the FSA/OWI 1939-1945 documenting the movement of women into the work force during the war.
Have students create a timeline of major events and experiences of the Depression and New Deal. They can use these timelines to formulate search words and find photographs to illustrate their timelines. In addition to a sense of cause and effect over time, attention to details of the photographs and captions will give students a sense of the relationship between local and national events, social conditions and governmental decisions. Alternatively, students can search related topics such as the dust bowl and migrants for photographs such as this one. Focusing on dates and places, students can discern cause-and-effect relationships.
The collection provides vivid scenes of the harshness of life in rural America during the Great Depression. Students can explore this aspect of social history with some depth by searching squatters, drought, sharecropper, migrant, or Hooverville. Students may then use Voices From the Dust Bowl to access songs that provide another kind of account of the stark living conditions of poverty-stricken Americans. Browse Song Text for lyrics or Audio Titles for recordings of songs such as the following. Students can then write their own lyrics to a song that describes or tells a story about life in rural America during the Depression.
- I'd Rather Not Be on Relief
- The Lightning Express
- Stevensville Blues
- Why We Come to California
- Root Hog or Die
- Some More Greenback Dollar
- Sunny Cal
- "The Lightning Express"
- "Stevensville Blues"
- "Sunny Cal"
- "California" (a variation of Root Hog or Die)
- "I Don't Want Your Greenback Dollar"
- "The Highway Hobo"
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Students can learn to analyze and interpret photographs by thinking of them as the creations of different photographers with different approaches. Have students read about two or more photographers in the Special Presentation "Documenting America: Photographers on Assignment". Then have them browse the photographs by creator and choose images by these photographers for analysis and comparison.
Have them answer the following questions about each picture:
- What is the subject of the photograph? Where was it taken?
- What stands out to you? Tiny details or big shapes? People or things?
- What is its mood? How does it make you feel to look at it?
- Which photograph do you like best? Why?
- What is different about the photographs? What is the same?
- Do the photographs reflect what you read about their creators? Why or why not?
- What do you think the photographer might be trying to communicate about his subject? What does she want you to know or notice about her subject?
- Do the photographs reinforce points of view? Are they the same?
- Do the images or their captions reflect a bias? At what point does a photograph become biased? Are these "documentary" photographs objective? To what extent?
Students can also compare photographs of the same subject by browsing by subject. Or students may choose to compare photographs dealing with the issue of segregation. Search Forrest City, Arkansas, for photographs depicting relief efforts for flood refugees. Search Hill House (an experimental cooperative) and colored for other pertinent images. Analyze, interpret, and compare these photographs using the preceding questions.
Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making
Many photographs document problems that face the nation today, such as soil erosion, migrant labor, slums, and tenements.
Search any of these words for photographs that may be compared and contrasted with contemporary images from television or periodicals.
Have students research a current and local problem, take a position on it, and take a photograph or make a drawing that reflects that position.
Historical Research Capabilities
Using photographs as a starting point for research can give the research topics a context and relevance that make them less abstract and more engaging to students. With an eye for detail, students can use photographs and their captions to formulate search words for research into the major issues of the Depression era. In addition to FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945, research can begin with Voices from the Dust Bowl.
This photograph and its full caption can be a starting point for research into sharecropper contracts and the effects of surplus labor.
The story of this family's legal eviction due to union membership provides a starting point for research into the plight of farm union members.
Arts & Humanities
The visual nature of FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945 lends itself to a variety of imaginative projects, while the historical content provides a wide variety of writing topics. The collection also affords students the opportunity to consider and write about photographs as "texts" and to explore the connections between the visual and literary media.
Students can use the collection to see the relationship between literature and social history. Have students read excerpts from John Steinbeck's The Harvest Gypsies or The Grapes of Wrath, formulate search words from the texts, and find photographs to illustrate selected passages. Search Tom Collins and Kern County for photographs that document the Resettlement Camp and camp manager upon which those in The Grapes of Wrath are based. Search Joad in Voices from the Dust Bowl, read the notes on the collecting expedition, or turn to page 10 in Charles Todd's Scrapbook to see how the novel in turn affected social history. Alternatively, have students search evacuation and Japanese for photographs to illustrate Ellen Levine's A Fence Away from Freedom or Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston.
Students can select and research a New Deal activity using the collection and other resources. Have them write a paper analyzing the pros and cons, successes and failures of the activity, making an argument about its effectiveness. Students may also be encouraged to analyze photographs, as they would other evidence, in support of their claims.
Public speaking inundated the meetings and rallies of union organization and the labor movement. Students can learn more about these events and speeches by searching union, meeting, strike, and picket for photographs such as these. They can also research other sources including Voices from the Dust Bowl and American Life Histories, 1936-1940. Then have them write and deliver a speech as if at a union meeting, labor rally, or strike.
Play or Skit
The Federal Theatre Project, established during the New Deal, employed unemployed playwrights and actors to create and perform short dramas based on current issues. These "Living Newspaper" plays were often used to sway public opinion to support New Deal programs. Have students form groups to select and dramatize an issue from the Depression era, referring to photographs to create a backdrop and select props.
Letters and Journal Writing
Students can assume the roles of youth appearing in various photographs and write journal entries or letters describing what their daily lives are like. Dorothea Lange's photograph of this fourteen-year-old provides a starting point for imagining what life in a migrant camp must have been like. Edwin Rosskam's photograph provokes empathy with urban children during the Depression. Search playing and children for a broader picture of such youths' lives.
Students can write short stories based on photographs with extensive and detailed captions. The caption of this photograph describes the plight of an Arkansas family that was refused entrance into California until they could prove they were not indigents. They went all the way back to Arkansas to borrow the fifty dollars that finally enabled them to enter the state. A discussion about how a photograph can be like a story with plot, setting, and characters may provide a foundation for this project as well as for looking at photographs.
These two photographs provide the material for a lesson on irony. Have students examine them and explain, or discuss together, how these images express irony. Students can then make a photograph or drawing of their own that expresses irony.