August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
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.
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:
“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?
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.”