- Historic Sites
“In This Proud Land”
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
The shift in Stryker’s direction had far-reaching results. For not only did the Historical Section of the FSA move beyond its original role as a propaganda agency, but the new, broad, and positive view of America that the photographers were recording was hungrily grabbed up by news agencies and magazines throughout the country. A new outlook and sophistication gripped the photographers who had worked so long with rural people. They began to function as reporters, feeding back to Stryker graphic descriptions of when and where unrest and injustice were building up. And he in turn would see that the information worked its way into the right channels for government action. He once remarked, “This was all part of our job to record contemporary history. That’s why I was once startled—though not displeased—when someone called me ‘a press agent of the underprivileged.’ ”
Press agent though he might have been, Stryker was also a watchdog of the national image. One day, shortly before the Germans launched their attack in Europe, a well-dressed gentleman from the German embassy showed up at Stryker’s office, asking to be shown the “famous” pictures of America—the sharecroppers and migrants, floods and dust storms, and other scenes of woe and misery that had been printed across America. Stryker recalled: “He was a very pleasant little Nazi. I had no intention of allowing the records of America’s internal problems to fall into his hands. I had the file clerks show him a wonderful range of things—mountains and rivers and lush fields, welldressed people living off what fat there was left of the land. He left without having chosen a single one.”
Up to December 7, 1941, the well-established Historical Section pretty much had carte blanche in covering America’s prewar build-up as Stryker wanted it done. But after Pearl Harbor bureaucratic changes, a cutback in funds, and a congressional assault on the FSA wiped out all hopes that Stryker had for a meaningful study of America emerging as the major world power. For nearly two years he fought to keep the project alive, sending photographers into the field to gather some of the most poignant shots to come out of the section. But in September, 1943, Stryker gave up and resigned.
Speaking of his days at Farm Security, Stryker once remarked, “The pictures were the important thing. To spend all that money [nearly a million dollars] to get all those pictures [nearly 270,000] was something of a bureaucratic miracle. Toward the end there was strong pressure from the government to destroy the entire file, negatives included. For a time it looked like everything would be lost. Then my old friend Archibald MacLeish appeared as head of the Library of Congress. I had always wanted the collection to go there, and so it did, narrowed down to 170,000 negatives.”
Of the seventy thousand pictures on file at the Library of Congress an estimated forty thousand are of agricultural programs, dedications, and the war effort. The discrepancy between the seventy thousand file prints and the 170,000 negatives is, for the most part, duplication of subject material. Of the 270,000 photographs actually taken during the project’s lifetime, Stryker killed—by punching holes in the negatives—about a hundred thousand that he considered inferior.
The FSA photo project was unique. Not only were the times and people right, but Roy Stryker was certainly right. Asked once whether there could ever again be such a project, Stryker replied, “It was alljust a little like the process of evolution that I learned about years ago at the Colorado School of Mines. When the water temperature was right, when the salts in the river were right, the salamanders came out of the water, and pretty soon human beings were created. Now, do you know what the water temperature down in Washington is? Do you know if the salts are right? Well, don’t come out of the water until you do.”
Then he added, “Farm Security was one of those freaks, one of those salamanders. It can’t happen again. But something new will happen. Something different. I wish to hell I could be around for it.”