The New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography project remains a landmark of documentary photography—and social realism. The project launched the careers of several major photographers, and when we think of Depression America, we see its searing images. But it was a political failure. So, too, is this disorganized book.
Taschen’s standard format makes for an affordable, quality product, and as an aesthetic and ideological statement, the photographs still pack a punch. The tradeoff: The doorstop size, packed with photographs, and text printed in English, French, and German leave limited room for editorial context. The German editor Peter Walther’s primary expertise is in photography and German literature, without a feel for the nuances of the New Deal’s Stalinism Lite. Because the photographs are in the public domain, selections have been reproduced in other, more thoughtful, books over the last three decades.
The book claims to offer a geographically organized portrait of America in the 1930s and early ’40s, but this is misleading. As the photographers’ candid comments throughout the book indicate, project head Roy Stryker was commissioning propaganda (his word) for the Roosevelt administration, whose message changed with political needs. The ideological thread would have been clearer had this, like other FSA books, been organized chronologically or by photographer.
The photographs, unlike the urbanizing nation of the time, are predominantly rural and small-town until the last phases of Stryker’s federal career. In the beginning, Brain Truster Rexford Tugwell (Stryker’s economics teacher at Columbia), believing that the Depression was permanent, launched the Resettlement Administration, the predecessor of the FSA. The RA created collective settlements where displaced agricultural workers could grow their own food. On Washington’s Metro, Beltway denizens can visit one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorites: Greenbelt, Maryland.
Unfortunately, the New Deal itself was responsible for much of the devastation, as even left-leaning writers on the FSA have noted, not to mention conservative historians such as Amity Shlaes. In the economically illiterate hope that raising prices would increase incomes and restore prosperity, the New Deal cartelized agriculture. Landowners raked in subsidies for taking land out of production and destroying crops and livestock, which threw huge numbers of agricultural laborers, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers out of work and made food and clothing more expensive. FDR himself, having created the opportunity, built his coalition by decrying “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-nourished.”
The first and most famous phase of the FSA project sanctified these destitute workers. Its iconic photograph is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), depicting an abandoned Okie mother and children stranded by their busted car in California’s Central Valley, where they had gone for agricultural work. Lange’s triangular composition, evoking a Raphael Madonna, has lost none of its desperation and sorrow, and for the rest of her long career, she resisted being stereotyped as a one-picture photographer. The picture wasn’t posed, Lange said; she had permission to hang around the family’s camp and waited for the right moment. But photography always requires a choice among images, and until the photographers made him stop, Stryker went so far as to destroy negatives that didn’t follow the party line.
Stryker claimed that unlike Life, which launched the golden age of American photojournalism in 1936, the FSA photographs themselves were intended to be the documents, as opposed to illustrating a particular story’s narrative. This distinction is without much difference: Fortune would often give photographers near-carte blanche—as in the Walker Evans southern series, done on hiatus from the FSA, that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—while Stryker would send the photographers out on assignment with a script, albeit with some flexibility.
This anticipated the postwar Magnum agency, where photojournalists with individual aesthetics went out into the world and developed their own stories. The FSA photographs are static compared to Weegee’s anarchic, garish, almost exactly contemporary photos of New York City lowlifes (and low deaths). Instead, Stryker sought to emulate Lewis Hine’s straightforward social documentary portraits of workers. Like the Soviet photographer Aleksander Rodchenko, whose explosive Constructivist compositions congealed, under Stalinist pressure, into heroic images of the proletariat, the FSA photographers were part of the worldwide 1930s trend to Socialist Realism.
In this early phase, in order to avoid provoking the southern Democratic barons in Congress, the poor but noble agricultural workers photographed were overwhelmingly white. People are notably slim: A half-century before the obesity epidemic, the rare overweight Americans are literally fat cats like Dorothea Lange’s white southern plantation boss, shown with his slender black crew (1936).
In contrast to Jacob Riis’s early-20th-century New York slum photos, the FSA photographers were instructed to downplay the squalor. Ever the truant, Walker Evans departed from the Stryker aesthetic in his geometric shots of unpopulated, beaten-up houses, cemeteries, and townscapes, echoing the earlier geometric work of Charles Sheeler and Alfred Stieglitz. Work from this series was incorporated into the pathbreaking American Photographs (1938), setting the table for postwar classics like Robert Frank’s The Americans and Lee Friedlander’s streetscapes.
Back at the FSA, Stryker was having a hard time getting mainstream publications to use his photographs. Ironically—and noted only in passing by Peter Walther—the FSA photos became widely known only when Edward Steichen, in his last exhibition as Museum of Modern Art photography curator, used them as propaganda for a new collectivist push: the 1960s “Other America” antipoverty crusade. Meanwhile, “Red Rex” (as conservatives called Tugwell) was a lightning rod for controversy, and southern Democrats and Republican conservatives were increasingly opposed to the New Deal. Once they took control of Congress in the 1938 election, they sought to shut down the program.
It was time to show happy peasants, rather than destitute peasants, in order to highlight the New Deal’s successes. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, the peasants were revolting. Progressive-leaning historians Alan Trachtenberg and Lawrence Levine report, in Documenting America, that the FSA’s clients resisted collectivized subsistence agriculture. Stryker’s scripts became more directive, with more views of townscapes with improving conditions and rural families at the local cooperative store (kept in business by New Deal-era restrictions on cheaper chain stores). Less stark than the mid-1930s work, they also offer mass baptisms, jitterbuggers, Ferris wheels, and elderly Florida beach vacationers.
With the start of World War II, FDR’s Dr. Win-the-War replaced Dr. New Deal. The FSA photography unit was shut down and the remaining staff moved over to a new propaganda vehicle, the Office of War Information. Later-period FSA and OWI pictures offer early color photography—this book’s revelation, offering a more vivid, naturalistic perspective than Norman Rockwell’s sentimental, photorealistic color illustrations. Back in black and white, we see big cities as the war boom takes hold, with views of downtown Dallas and Chicago’s Union Station, and masses of people at work.
Of course, not all groups saw increased opportunity during World War II. The book’s shocker is buried on page 299, thanks to the perverse geographical organization: Hello to Manzanar—or at least, to Tule Lake. Every collectivist agricultural revolution needs its kulaks, and the administration at last found a population that was compelled to obey commands and (at least in the case of its businesses) be liquidated. Japanese Americans, subject to intense racial discrimination before the war, had created an entrepreneurial niche in truck gardening: fruits and vegetables for urban markets that we would today call “locally sourced.” After being forced to sell their businesses for pennies on the dollar, they were shipped off to internment camps.
You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs, and you can’t collectivize agriculture without creating food shortages: The Roosevelt administration disrupted the West Coast’s efficient fruit and vegetable agricultural sector just as the region’s population exploded with war workers. New Deal Photography offers a single color Russell Lee picture (1942), which the OWI presumably hoped would depict the internees as happy collective farmers among the furrows. They don’t look too happy—nor should readers be, because this appalling culmination of the FSA project has been addressed in depth in several previous books, as opposed to the cursory treatment here.
Jay Weiser is associate professor of law and real estate at Baruch College.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard