Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers

A thought-provoking documentary on the FSA photographers recently aired on PBS, and I finally got around to watching it over the weekend (after saving it on the DVR when it originally ran on August 18th). I must admit that prior to seeing this film, my knowledge of the FSA was limited to a few high points: Walker Evans in Alabama, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, and maybe Arthur Rothstein’s dust bowl pictures.

So let’s start with a bit of background that I learned from this documentary, which while obvious to experts in the field I’m sure, was generally new to me. Starting in the mid 1920s, rural America, and those engaged in agriculture more specifically, started a period of steady decline, as commodity prices around the globe came down after the end WWI. When the financial markets crashed in 1929, a broad and deep depression gripped virtually all parts of the country. As FDR worked to get his New Deal programs passed through Congress, it became clear to him that Washington and much of urban America was out of touch with the suffering going on in rural communities across the nation. People were not up in arms about rural poverty, or the plight of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, or the larger and larger numbers of displaced people and migrant workers. A sustained political effort was going to be needed to change people’s perceptions; he needed a way to “introduce America to Americans” and thus was born the idea of sending photographers out to document what was happening.

Roy Stryker was brought in to run this effort, and he gathered together the photographers, gave them assignments, defended his budget to Congress, and generally got things done. Over the period of 1935-1943, this effort was housed in a variety of places: the historical unit of the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, and later, the Office of War Information. Throughout this time, all of the pictures were gathered together into one “big file” (which eventually ended up at the Library of Congress). Here’s a list of the photographers mentioned in the documentary who contributed to the effort:

Esther Bubley
John Collier Jr.
Jack Delano
Walker Evans
Dorothea Lange
Russell Lee
Edwin Locke
Carl Mydans
Gordon Parks
Edwin & Louise Rosskam
Arthur Rothstein
Ben Shahn
John Vachon
Marion Post Wolcott

The documentary follows a generally historical timeline, interspersed with vignettes and anecdotes about specific photographers. There are interviews with Louise Rosskam and Gordon Parks which are particularly interesting, and more gossipy tidbits are thrown in periodically for flair (Walker Evans was the first one fired from the FSA, since he wouldn’t follow the rules and manage his budget; Marian Post Wolcott was so beautiful that she often wasn’t taken seriously etc.). The iconic images from this period are also given a fuller treatment, with discussion of how and why the pictures came to be taken.

In general, this is a terrific documentary that is well worth an hour of your time. I think it also begs the question of how and where today’s documentary pictures are being stored and archived. While we think of the group above and others (like Margaret Bourke-White and Weegee) as “artists” today, in their time, they were photojournalists. So who is taking care of the flood of images being created by the photojournalists of today?

By the way, there is also a very fine website in support of the film, which can be found here.

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