- Historic Sites
“In This Proud Land”
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Carl Mydans, with a strong background in journalism, was exploring everyday concerns with a camera in New York and trying unsuccessfully to sell his pictures to magazines. He was hired by Stryker, who was impressed with Mydans’ warm and spontaneous approach to people.
At the same time arrived the most prestigious, particular, and temperamental photographer on the FSA team—Walker Evans. His pictures stood out from the lot with an unforgettable beauty. The only photographer to work with a large view camera, Evans took fewer pictures than anyone and spaced them over a longer period of time. Stryker eventually let him go because of his moodiness and his failure to produce the required number of photographs; the question of art was never involved. Today Evans’ FSA pictures are regarded as the most artistic of all.
Soon after came Ben Shahn, a noted painter, lithographer, and muralist. Stryker recalls:
“Shahn came in from painting murals, and I put a Leica in his hands and said, ‘Go out and fool around with it.’ Shahn came back with pictures that were like his paintings- imaginative, beautiful things not restricted by technique. They were often out of focus and overexposed or underexposed. When Arthur or Walker Evans or Carl Mydans would get to worrying too much about technique, I’d bring out Shahn’s photographs and say, ‘Look at what Shahn has done and he doesn’t know one part of a camera from another.’”
During that first fall, Stryker saw the pictures of Dorothea Lange, who had been deeply involved with the plight of California migrants. He was struck by her stark approach, and he felt that her pictures reflected a dignity of spirit that was unique. Later Stryker said that Lange “had the most sensitivity and the most rapport with people.” She was quickly added to the payroll.
By the fall of 1935, with five of the most gifted photographers ever assembled, the FSA photo project was ready to start work.
The direction that the project took ignored governmental guidelines. Instead Stryker’s convictions went to work. “I have nothing of the craftsman about me at all,” he once explained to a colleague. “My only implement in life has been an insatiable curiosity about everything and everybody. I wanted to know why about everything. …”
Stryker translated his passion for “why” into specific guidelines for the photographers. This was when Stryker—the teacher, the economist, the man capable of communicating his enthusiasm to his staff—was at his best.
Before going out on assignment each member of the team was required to learn all he could about the area, its people, its economy, its political and social mores. The bible for the FSA photographers was J. Russell Smith’s socioeconomic geography book, North America . In addition they carried maps, Department of Agriculture pamphlets, such magazines as Harper’s and Atlantic , plus a “shooting script” prepared by Stryker that he has described as follows:
“Government was looser and more informal in those days than it is now. The bureaucratic web was such that my so-called official assignment memos—the photographers’ shooting scripts—went like this: ‘Bill posters; sign painters—crowd watching a window sign being painted; sky writing; paper in park after concert; parade watching, ticker tape, sitting on curb; roller skating; spooners-neckers; mowing the front lawn.’ ”
Both Stryker’s ability to direct and his insistence that photographers go out armed with the facts are illustrated by a story he tells about one of Carl Mydans’ first assignments: