“In This Proud Land”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“I remember one time when things were pretty bad down in the South and I assigned Carl to do a story about cotton. He had his bags packed and was going out the door, and I said to him, T assume you know something about cotton.’ He said, ‘No, not very much.’ I called in my secretary and said, ‘Cancel Carl’s reservations. He’s going to stay here with me for a while.’ We sat down and we talked almost all day about cotton. We went to lunch and we went to dinner and we talked well into the night about cotton. I told him about cotton as an agricultural product, cotton as a commercial product, the history of cotton in the South, what cotton did to the history of the country, and how it affected areas outside the country. By the time we were through, Carl was ready to go off and photograph cotton.”

As the photographs trickled back to Washington from the photographers, who sometimes went out for as long as six months at a time, Stryker knew what he was getting. He could hardly wait to open his mail in the mornings. He was excited, and so were the publications that were routinely given free use of the pictures and thereby brought to the attention of America what was happening to the one-third of a nation that was, in President Roosevelt’s famous phrase, “ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed.” As a propaganda tool to help the New Dealers push through their farm programs, the FSA pictures proved a most vital asset. But they proved another thing, too: that America was not completely downtrodden, nor was it hopeless.

The government, however, often found it hard to accept the historical aspects of what Stryker was doing. Again and again he was criticized for not sticking to business, for wasting taxpayers’money, for bootlegging into a government file a lot of pictures of American life that had no use whatsoever—“silly sentimental pictures of women in bonnets.” There was a congressional investigation. There were threats to cut off Stryker’s funds. His staff was reduced. Time and again the photo unit seemed on the verge of oblivion. Time and again it was Tugwell who came to the rescue.

“The administration,” Stryker admitted many years later, “simply could not afford to hammer home anything except their message that federal money was desperately needed for major relief programs. Most of what the photographers had to do to stay on the payroll was routine stuff showing what a goodjob the agencies were doing out in the field. … But we threw in a day here, a day there, to get what history has proved to be the guts of the project. … I’d tell the photographers, look for the significant detail. The kinds of things that a scholar a hundred years from now is going to wonder about. A butter churn. A horse trough. Crank-handle telephones. Front porches. The horse and buggy. The milk pails and the cream separators. Corner cupboards and wood stoves. Symbols of the time.”

From 1937 until the end of the project in 1943 Stryker and the photographers working with him were constantly broadening their aims. By then new men were working in the photographic section: Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, John Collier, Jr., John Vachon, Jack Delano, and, toward the end, Gordon Parks, the gifted black photographer. It was Stryker’s goal to “record on film as much of America as we could in terms of people and the land. We photographed destitute migrants and average American townspeople, sharecroppers and prosperous farmers, eroded land and fertile land, human misery and human elation.

“What we ended up with was as well-rounded a picture of American life during that period as anyone could get. The pictures that were used were mostly pictures of the Dust Bowl and migrants and half-starved cattle. But probably half of the file contained positive pictures … country square dances and people listening to those big old radios, a soda jerk flipping a scoop of ice cream through the air, the mantel with the family portraits and the old Victorian clock, the nickel hamburger joints and the ten-cent barbershops … and then, of course, the big landscape pictures which showed prosperity and timelessness. …

“But the faces to me were the most significant part of the file. I remember when [John] 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.”

The faces that so gripped Stryker made him more and more curious about the small towns, the places where the faces lived. His staff, by then used to Stryker’s shooting scripts, began to receive long lists of questions about towns, such as:

What do people do at home in the evenings?

Do the activities in a small town differ from those in a large city?

Do they vary according to income groups?

How do various income levels dress when they go to church?

Where do people meet?

Do beer halls and pool halls take the place of country clubs for the poor?

Has anyone ever taken a really good series of pictures of a filling station, showing its relationship to the restless, shifting American population?