Farm Security Administration

15th May 2013

It’s easier to discuss a group of photographers with a heading of the government department they all worked for, who over a very short period of eight years, produced some of the most influential work on social (in)justice that still influences many, including me, to this day, than to discuss them as individuals in separate entries.

Along with may others I think my favourite of the group is Dorothea Lange closely followed by Walker Evans.

Lange was particularly prolific and the digitised collection in the Library of Congress has over 3,800 separate images in its collection.  Evans work is held by Metropolitan Museum of Art and includes his entire estate, less approximately 1,000 negatives held by Library of Congress, which amounts to over 10, 000 items.

Of course there are many other notable photographers who worked for the FSA, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Marion Post Walcott, Arthur Rothstein and quite a few others.  They were ably led by Roy Stryker who set them their individual assignments and provided detailed instructions on what, where, when and how he wanted the images to appear.  This did become very irksome to many of the individuals who felt that individual creativity was being stifled which did lead to some confrontations, but he oversaw the production of 164,000 negatives, 77,000 individual photographs being made available to the press along with over 600 early colour photographs.  This helped the American public and the administration of the period overcome the degrading and debilitating poverty that the depression era caused on the rural population of marginal farmers and their families.

Today this work has far-reaching influences on many documentary photographers by giving them a lead on the depiction of social injustice and the humanisation of their problems.  Although a great tragedy in history was recorded by these artists without their influential work the depiction of modern tragedies would possibly be more exploitational as many other areas of photography have become.

My recent work has definitely been influenced not only by personal circumstances but also by the review of many of the images created by this group and I hope that it shows in my images.

4 Responses to Farm Security Administration

  1. jsumb says:

    It’s interesting what you say about ‘ably led by Roy Stryker’ and how you have been influenced by the FSA group of photographers. Stryker was a very strong influence on what they undertook and, ultimately, what got published – Walker Evans being one of the first to walk away from that control! I suppose the huge difference is that whilst Stryker was the ultimate editor, you hold that position in your own work. Stryker had very clear ideas what was going to be published, what their briefs were etc. However as students we are our own editors and what we produce comes from our own sense of (in)justice, I wonder though how dispassionate we can be with our own work, to present to the viewer something that can tell a full story; or whether we should be dispassionate about the subject? Interesting…

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      The fact that the FSA met it’s brief with the photographic evidence they provided was not just a coincidence of photographers being available at the right time, it was also the great vision that Stryker had and his strong will that pushed the artists to produce the work they did. As the ultimate editor, it was his vision that rejected a lot of the early work they produced as not showing the humanitarian catastrophe taking place. He did eventually get the ‘God’ complex and chased the very able away as a result, but I wonder if any of the photographers would have been as able as him as editor? And don’t we photographers now look to others as well as ourselves to provide editorial input to our work, particularly when we get too close to it to ‘see the wood for the trees,?

      • jsumb says:

        I’m not saying that Stryker was right or wrong – I’d probably veer to the he was right side of the argument if pushed – but the project was set up by the US government to push public opinion for state intervention at a time when the US was having one of it’s regular clashes of conscience – and a precursor to the ‘reds under the bed’ time of McCarthyism. The body of work, will as you say, stand the test of time and brought to the ‘middle class public’ issues that might have passed it by and helped secure the “New Deal” for Roosevelt whose opposition lay in the Republican’s fear of state intervention and, by implication, communism. So, what I’m saying is that the work was heavily underscored with a polemic, edited by Stryker for his political grandees. All that said, it was the continued striving for growth in a market led economy that created both the climate for economic and agricultural ruin, fed by the banks insatiable and wreckless need for money. Plus ca change!

      • Eddy Lerp says:

        I fully agree John, sorry if I got the wrong message from your first comment.

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