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Documentary Photography and the Great Depression

           From 1935 to 1943, photographers working for the federal government produced the most enduring images of the Great Depression. Beginning under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration in 1935 and then the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937, a group that over time included about twenty men and women worked under the supervision of Roy E. Stryker to create a pictorial record of the impact of hard times on the nation, primarily on rural Americans. This project, as photography historian Alan Trachtenberg has noted, "was perhaps the greatest collective effort . . . in the history of photography to mobilize resources to create a cumulative picture of a place and time." Many of the eighty thousand photographs taken by the so-called FSA photographers were distributed by the agency to newspapers and magazines to build support for the New Deal's rural programs. As FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein later recalled, "It was our job to document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them."

           These publicly displayed FSA images had a profound impact on contemporary viewers. "These pictures impress one as real life of a vast section of the American people," commented one viewer of FSA photos exhibited in an April 1938 show called "How American People Live." It was a remark that summarized the overwhelming public reaction. Three generations after their creation, the FSA photographs remain the basis for Americans' visual understanding of the Great Depression and have also set a standard for subsequent documentary photography. Photographs such as Dorothea Lange's 1936 portrait "Migrant Mother" and Walker Evans's 1936 series depicting the faces and homes of Alabama sharecroppers have become icons of the era, pictures that in their directness and simplicity record the conditions of poverty while also celebrating the persistent human spirit of survival in even the most difficult of circumstances.

           Unlike similar symbols rendered in paint or prose, however, photographs seem to convey reality without the mediation of an artist or interpreter. In photographs, Trachtenberg has observed, we seem to see "the world itself," people, rocks, fences, clouds. No teller tells (or writes) these stories; they happen by themselves." But photographs do not capture "objective" reality. Like other historical sources, they are interpretations, versions of reality that document facts but also express ideas and opinions and tell stories. As the creators of images photographers are always mindful that their pictures are to be viewed by an audience. They choose particular perspectives and poses to convey messages and use the frame of the photograph to focus attention on certain information while also cutting out "extraneous" material. The process of creation continues later in the darkroom, where the photographer selects particular shots from a series of exposures, often cropping the original image to further enhance certain elements.

           That photographs are interpretations does not diminish their value as historical evidence. Instead, like other historical sources, they need to be examined critically. The circumstances of their creation should be considered: Where was the photographer standing? Why did the photographer choose a particular pose or shoot from a particular angle? What did the photographer include in and exclude from the picture frame and why? Was the original picture later cropped and, if so, why? Was the published picture accompanied by an explanatory caption and, if so, what influence did it have on viewers' understanding of the photograph? What audience was the photographer addressing when he or she took the photograph? Aided by such information, the stories that photographs tell provide us with insights into the society in which they were created.

           The FSA's vast pictorial undertaking, as Roy Stryker later recalled, endeavored to introduce "Americans to America." This goal had a specific audience in mind: middle-class Americans who lived in cities far from the locales depicted in the photographs and who comprised the vast majority of the readers of the newspapers and magazines in which the FSA pictures were reproduced. FSA photographs presented their rural subjects in ways that middle-class viewers could recognize and sympathize with. Attempting to overcome fears about the disorder provoked by the depression, photographers chose poses and points of view that emphasized their subjects' dignity, orderliness, and responsibility in the face of hardship. They did not intend their photographs to deceive. Rather, as historian James Curtis has written, "project director Roy Stryker and his staff created a powerful portrait that communicated rural suffering in terms that an urban middle class would readily understand."

           The photographs included here demonstrate some of the ways FSA documentary photographers created dramatic and accessible images. When he took his portraits of Alabama sharecroppers in Summer 1936, Walker Evans used a bulky and complicated view or portrait camera that captured fine details but required his subjects to strike formal poses. The resulting photographs (which were later included as illustrations in James Agee's celebrated 1941 depression-era study Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) showed, in James Curtis's words, "the order and beauty that he believed lay beneath the surface of their poverty. . . . Evans sought to ennoble the sharecroppers and to express his own concern at the conditions of their lives."

The impact of Evans's meticulous compositions becomes evident when we compare the widely circulated view camera photographs with informal pictures he took in preparation for the shoot with a more versatile, less formal 35mm camera. In a similar fashion, as demonstrated in three different portraits of sharecropper Floyd Burroughs (called George Gudger in Agee's book), Evans often took several exposures, including poses decided upon by his subjects. Later in the darkroom, however, Evans chose only one of these shots for publication. Examine a selection of Evans's photographs and try your hand at deciding which ones were chosen for publication.