“In This Proud Land”

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Among the legacies from the Depression of the 1930’s, along with the fear and hunger of those crippling years, is an impressive national treasure of creative work—an artistic archive paid for by the government. Many projects that employed artists and writers were conceived specifically as a means of providing jobs. Some, however, including the photographic project of the Farm Security Administration, were essentially propagandiste. In financing the FSA pictures the government wanted to provide proof that its farm programs were needed and working. It was incidental to the government’s purpose that the pictures formed a unique archive of those years.

Incidental, but not—as it turns out—accidental. Roy Stryker, who headed the photographic unit, “had a hunch” that the photographers working for him were producing pictures of more than temporary value. That he was right was unforgettably demonstrated m igGs when the Museum of Modern A rt in New York held a show about the Depression called “The Bitter Years,” consisting entirely of FSA photographs. Stryker liked the show but was disappointed that the late Edward Steichen, who selected the material, had not chosen any of “the positive pictures.”

Now, at eighty, Stryker has made his own selection—a group of pictures that he feels makes a powerful statement about America. Approximately two hundred of these photographs, with an accompanying text by Nancy Wood, will be published by the New York Graphic Society later this fall under the title In This Proud Land . In the following portfolio we present our selection of Mr. Stryker’s selection—emphasizing some of the less well-known pictures from this remarkable collection—and an excerpt adapted from Nancy Wood’s introductory portrait of Roy Stryker.

We pick up the Wood text when Stryker was called to Washington in 1935 by Rexford Guy Tugwell, the Undersecretary of Agriculture. Tugwell had been Stryker ‘s teacher and mentor at Columbia University in New York, where Stryker had come to study and then teach economics. Knowing of Stryker’s passion for documentary photography, Tugwell offered him an irresistible job.

 

 

Considering how crucial Roy Stryker’s shift from teaching to government service was to his whole future, Stryker describes the circumstances with amazing casualness.

“Tugwell went to Washington in the exciting early days of the New Deal,” he says, “and shortly thereafter he sent for me to come down and work with him. In this way he gave me my great chance. He wanted to prepare a pictorial documentation of our rural areas and rural problems, something that had always been dear to my heart.

“But I didn’t know how to go about doing the job he wanted me to—and he sensed it. One day he brought me into the office and said to me, ‘Roy, a man may have holes in his shoes, and you may see the holes when you take the picture. But maybe your sense of the human being will teach you there’s a lot more in that man than the holes in his shoes, and you ought to try and get that idea across.’”

That was in the summer of 1935. How was Stryker to picture what was behind the man with the holes in his shoes? He looked at his official job description. His duties were to “… direct the activities of investigators, photographers, economists, sociologists and statisticians engaged in the accumulation and compilation of reports … statistics, photographic material, vital statistics, agricultural surveys, maps and sketches necessary to make accurate descriptions of the various … phases of the Resettlement Administration [as the Farm Security Administration was originally called], particularly with regard to the historical, sociological and economic aspects of the several programs and their accomplishments.”

It was just the sort of vague governmental mumble that Stryker detested. Probably few men at the time were more ill-suited to government work than he, and yet there he was, handed an unprecedented opportunity by Tugwell to do a particular job, but to do it as he pleased. He knew there had to be a picture file of rural problems, but what kind of picture file, and who would produce it?

Certainly not Stryker himself. Looking back at this time, he once remarked, “Perhaps my greatest asset was my lack of photographic knowledge. … I always had a camera, but I had no more business with that damn Leica than with a B-29. I got a hell of an inferiority complex because of it. My aunt and I once shot a family reunion. Her ten-dollar Brownie got everything, while I drew blanks. I never snapped a shutter after that. … My title in Washington was Chief of the Historical Section. My goal was to write the history of the Farm Security Administration. We didn’t collect many documents. We collected pictures. Many think I went down to Washington with a big plan. I didn’t. There was no such plan.”

There may not have been a plan, but there was a clear mandate from Tugwell: get moving.

Slowly Stryker assembled his staff. The first to come was Arthur Rothstein, a chemistry major at Columbia who had taken a course in contemporary civilization under Stryker. At Columbia Rothstein had also copied thousands of pictures for him for a book about agriculture. He was dependable and a meticulous, skilled technician. He had just begun his photographic career by taking scientific pictures at a New York hospital. He would provide Stryker with the essentials of a darkroom.