N A COLD morning in October 1935, the artist Ben Shahn was in Arkansas, on a trip to find material he could use in designing murals and posters for a New Deal government agency. Shahn had arranged to take pictures of a group of cotton pickers gathering early for the workday in the fields. It was about 6:30 and chilly enough that Shahn could see the pickers’ breath.
“The sun was low, just rising, and it was beautiful,” Shahn told a Smithsonian historian years later. The pickers were prepared for the hot day to come and had filled large milk cans with water. Shahn began to take photographs, shooting about a dozen frames, some of the whole crew, others of small groups standing around together, and one or two of pickers sitting by themselves. The pictures Shahn took that day and in his journey across the South were so stunning in their depiction of the destitution that plagued the poorest farmers in the midst of the Great Depression that they were included in a file of photographs used by the government to promote agricultural relief programs. That file, over eight years from 1935 to 1943, accumulated more than a quarter million photographs showing hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country as they coped with the impact of the most severe economic crisis in US history.
Since the 1930s, these pictures have become known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) Photograph Collection and now are the foremost representation of the nation’s visual memories of life during the Depression. Many of the photos have become familiar symbols associated with those years, such as Dorothea Lange’s picture titled “Migrant Mother” and Arthur Rothstein’s shot of a dust storm in Cimarron County.
Arkansas is represented in the Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection by about 800 pictures, a small percentage of the whole, but among them are many images well known to Americans through their repeated use in books, articles, documentaries and exhibits about the Depression. The FSA photographers who took them later became some of the most influential documentarists, artists and photojournalists of the mid-20th century—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Carl Mydans and Edwin Locke.
The FSA was a government agency in charge of farm relief and assistance projects; in the alphabet soup of New Deal programs, it had evolved from an earlier agency, the Resettlement Administration (RA), which was created to tackle the crisis in agriculture. The leadership of the RA maintained the photographs were intended to be public information, to inform Americans about the extent and severity of rural poverty and document the federal projects designed to address the problems effectively. However, critics of the RA—and later the FSA as well—attacked the photos as propaganda meant to unfairly manipulate opinion.
The RA/FSA photographers, in recording the extreme poverty conditions they discovered in their assignments, developed a style later called “social documentary,” defined as pictures that were factually accurate in depicting those who were poor and disadvantaged, but taken with a sensitivity to their humanity. Few photographers at the time had attempted to use their pictures to call attention to the unseen “one-third” in American society, those referred to by Franklin Roosevelt in his second inaugural address as the “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished”; therefore, the approach was unfamiliar to people. The style became associated closely with RA/FSA photographs and proved to be key to their endurance as powerful images that have resonated with viewers over more than three-quarters of a century.
F ONE PERSON could speak knowledgeably about the quarter of a million images in the RA/FSA photography collection, it was Roy Stryker. In the 1973 book, In This Proud Land, he mused over the meaning and significance of the project with Nancy Wood:
But the faces to me were the most significant part of the file. When a man is down and they have taken from him his job and his land and his home—everything he spent his life working for—he’s going to have the expression of tragedy permanently on his face. But I have always believed that the American people have the ability to endure. And that is in those faces, too.
These faces are seen in the portraits throughout the collection, many of them among the “immortal pictures,” as Richard Doud characterized them in his 1960s interviews with Stryker. Or as Stryker put it, the photos that “give your heart a tug.” Most of the pictures in the file were the routine assignments demonstrating the good work done by New Deal agencies; they were straightforward records of activities, something like the photojournalism that Stryker called the “nouns and verbs” of photography. The portraits, however, were the best of the “adjectives and adverbs” that he said were “our kind of photography”; that is, the particular RA/FSA style. They were among the images that Stryker thought would prove to be of greatest value in the end, though they might have been overlooked in the 1930s. “You can’t have perspective when history is your bedfellow,” he told Wood.
The portraits are indeed among those most appealing to us now, the ones that offer a path to a deeper understanding of the lives of ordinary Arkansans in the 1930s. Ben Shahn knew this and told Doud in their 1962 interview that statistics alone couldn’t convey the impact of the Depression to Americans as effectively as telling the story of one individual’s experience.
Shahn came to Arkansas in 1935 prepared to take pictures of cotton farming, bringing along a pile of books on cotton he had been studying. But overall, he was much more interested in the people he found and in their humanity rather than in their role in cotton cultivation. Shahn’s skill at taking a photograph at just the right moment, catching a revealing gesture or the fleeting look in a person’s eyes, reflected his admiration for the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was known for his ability to anticipate the “peak moment of action” for pressing the shutter. Shahn’s mastery of this technique can be seen in his Arkansas photographs, particularly among those of his most familiar images—the Boone County rehabilitation client, the few remaining residents of Zinc, and his sharecroppers and cotton pickers.
Lange’s portraits have a different quality from those of other RA/FSA photographers, but she of course had a different way of approaching her subjects, according to Anne Whiston Spirn, in Daring to Look. Whereas others sought an “honest image” by catching people off-guard through the use of right-angle camera devices or distractions, Lange’s honest image meant having a direct connection with her subject. She told her apprentice Rondal Partridge, “I never steal a photograph. Never. All photographs are made in collaboration, as part of their thinking as well as mine.”
Lee took only the occasional portrait in his many photos of resettlement farms, including a few of individual farmers. Though those pictures have Lee’s particular touch of humanity, his more fascinating portraits don’t even show faces. He told Jack Hurley in a 1973 interview, “I was interested in how people lived… . I felt that the inside of a house was a very important part of showing how people lived. Of course, the outside was important too. You could tell about people by how the flowers were placed and how things were kept up. I became concerned with details.”
In Portrait of a Decade, Hurley relates a story about John Steinbeck visiting the RA/FSA offices in 1938 and stating he wanted to do a book on migrant labor. According to C. B. Baldwin, FSA assistant administrator at the time, Steinbeck was referred to Stryker, who spent several days with him going through the photo file. An FSA official then took him into the field, dressed as a migrant worker. From these experiences, Steinbeck produced The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939. Baldwin considered the book and subsequent movie as terrific promotion for the FSA. Stryker also recalled the incident and talked about it with Wood in In This Proud Land:
I remember when Steinbeck came in and looked at the pictures for a couple of days. Those tragic, beautiful faces were what inspired him to write The Grapes of Wrath. He caught in words everything the photographers were trying to say in pictures. Dignity versus despair. Maybe I’m a fool, but I believe that dignity wins out. When it doesn’t, then we as a people will become extinct.
Excerpt courtesy University of Arkansas Press. For more information, visit uapress.com/product/its-all-done-gone/.
Russell Lee’s image of workers bent over to pick cotton suggests a graceful rhythm in the rounded shapes flowing easily into long cotton sacks. However, the job was hot, back-breaking, debilitating labor.
(Russell Lee, September 1938) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–011671–M2
Dorothea Lange visited the cooperative farm at Hillhouse in 1936 and 1937 where she photographed a number of the Arkansas farmers, such as this man, who had been evicted from the Dibble plantation. Hillhouse was settled by both white and African American farmers who shared in he work and in the profits.
(Dorothea Lange, July–September 1936) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF34–009374–C
Dorthea Lange called this photo from Conway, “Arkansas Hoosier.” She quoted this woman at length, noting that she was born in 1855: “My father was a Confederate soldier. He give his age a year older that it was to get into the army. After the war he bought 280 acres from the railroad and cleared it. We never had a mortgage on it. In 1920 the land was sold, the money divided. Now, none of my children own their land. It’s all done gone, but it raised my family. I’ve done my duty—I feel like I have. I’ve raised 12 children.”
(Dorothea Lange, June 1938) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF34–018289–C
Dorothea Lange wrote that Clarence Weems had been relocated from Arkansas to Hillhouse Delta cooperative farm in Mississippi, and that he could remember the evictions of farmers’ union members in Arkansas, where his father was beaten and then disappeared.
(Dorothea Lange, June 1937) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF34–017338–C
Shahn’s “portraits” of three members of a sharecropper family—mother, child and doll.
(Ben Shahn, October 1935) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–006032–M1
Man relaxing on sacks of horse and mule fee in a Parkdale store, 1936.
(Carl Mydans, June 1936) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–000670–M3
A sharecropper family gathered on their front porch on a day off, taken near Little Rock.
(Ben Shahn, October 1935) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–006025–M3
Shahn took a series of photos of this young girl as she picked cotton. He and other RA/FSA photographers emphasized the age range of fieldworkers.
(Ben Shahn, October 1935) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–006218–M3
Cotton pickers fashion homemade knee pads for fieldwork at Lehi in Crittenden County.
(Russell Lee, September 1938) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–011620–M1
This photograph, one of Walker Evans’ best-known shots, shows refugees from the 1937 flood in the lineup for food at mealtime in the Forrest City Red Cross camp.
(Walker Evans, February 1937) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–009217–M3
A young boy picks cotton at the Lake Dick resettlement farm.
(Russell Lee, September 1938) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–011667–M4
Woman and child in a sharecropper’s cabin.
(Ben Shahn, October 1935) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF33–006026–M5
Dorothea Lange wrote that this cotton worker was dressed in Sunday clothes.
(Dorothea Lange, June 1937) Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF34–017363–C