“the Farm Security file would never have been created if we hadn’t the freedom to photograph anything, anywhere in the United States – anything that we came across that seemed interesting, and vital.” – Arthur Rothstein
The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) is renowned for creating a landmark photographic record of American life from 1935 to 1944. The FSA/OWI employed many of the 20th century’s preeminent American photographers including Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Dorthea Lange. They crisscrossed the United States to document the effects of the Great Depression and to promote Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. After the images were culled and edited by program head, Roy Stryker, the photos were made available for publication in government pamphlets, major picture magazines, and newspapers.
But the FSA/OWI project was as much propaganda as it was documentary record or journalism. While it may be tempting to see those images as unfiltered records of the Great Depression the intent of the project ensured that those images reflected a specific political narrative promoted by the Roosevelt Administration. Not to say the project was a cynical pictorial, but for better or worse it’s point of view reflected the political goals of the Roosevelt Administration.
Those institutional imperatives could make the project problematic. For instance, the people depicted in the FSA/OWI photo project often lacked agency, and the best-remembered images tend to celebrate the “Forgotten Man” and downplay class conflict. Instead, FSA photos put a human face on poverty to cultivate empathy in order to promote government reform solutions. (Here’s an article that addresses that issue in Dorthea Lange’s FSA work.)
To muddy the waters further, a viewer lacking a political understanding of the role of the FSA/OWI in the Roosevelt Administration may leave the photos lost in a wash of nostalgia. A contemporary viewer can easily read those images today as a celebration of individualism and the “real America”; rural America facing poverty and/or natural tragedy through noble resilience, personal grit and determination. The irony is that purpose of those images was to show the desperate conditions of deserving people who were in need of help in the form of national government aid programs. FSA photos depicted people living in typically unseen and often rural corners of the country in need of “Big Government” solutions to address the economic catastrophe that individualism was unable to cope with.
The FSA/OWI project goals also ensured that it would not provide a comprehensive reflection of the U.S. political economy of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Typically FSA photographic assignments included shooting scripts – lists of subjects the photographer was expected to cover to illustrate certain themes or to document certain conditions. If project director Roy Stryker found that an image didn’t pass muster, he was known to take a hole punch to photographs that he believed were inadequate.
And although labor militance was exploding in the 1930’s, that upheaval went largely undocumented by the FSA/OWI. Of the 175,000 negatives held by the Library of Congress, a tiny percentage document members of organized labor and their activities. This was to be expected given that Roosevelt’s legislative initiatives for organized labor, primarily through the Wagner Act, were designed to promote labor peace through a centralized organizational model. Roosevelt substituted administrative remedies for activism in the streets.
However, this isn’t to suggest that the FSA photographers themselves necessarily marched in political lockstep with the Roosevelt Administration.The FSA project did impose institutional constraints on the work but its photographers also enjoyed wide latitude to explore their subjects in the field. Further, left politics from that time could be diverse and dynamic. For instance the Popular Front provided a big political tent that could accommodate both liberals and radicals during that time.
And the left-leaning New York photo collective, Photo League, informed the work of many FSA/OWI photographers . It offered a learning environment for beginners and experienced photographers alike and the work of its members was often infused with a social conscience. It’s board of directors was a “who’s who” of 20th century American photography including founders Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott. The Photo League hosted lectures, exhibits and classes conducted by many of the leading photographers of the day including Lewis Hine, Lisette Model, Gordon Parks and Aaron Siskind. It also published the influential newsletter Photo Notes. The Photo League eventually fell prey to McCarthy Era paranoia and political opportunism and dissolved in 1951. (For more on the Photo League please check out the terrific book The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 and the fine documentary film, ORDINARY MIRACLES: THE PHOTO LEAGUE’S NEW YORK.)
The influence of the Photo League can be seen in the work of its members in Illinois. John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, and Carl Mydans were active in the Photo League and photographed in Illinois on behalf of the FSA/OWI. Those photographers along with a number of others created a cache of several thousand images depicting Depression-era life in a number of Illinois communities including West Frankfort, Peoria, Ottawa, Carbondale, Chicago and many others.
Arthur Rothstein visited Herrin, IL in January, 1939 to photograph life in an Illinois coal town. Many of those images are notable in the are among the tiny minority of FSA/OWI images depicting organized labor. The Herrin photographs can be divided into four general categories: 1) Herrin main street and consumer life, 2) portraits – mostly of unemployed miners, 3) shanties of struggling miners, and 4) health care delivered at Herrin Hospital. (I haven’t seen the shooting script Rothstein followed for his Herrin work. It’s possible he was photographing hospital activities to show the benefits of modern health care in a rural town.)
The subjects of the portraits are anonymous; only identified by location, employment status, and occupation. Only two jobs are included: “unemployed miner” or “police officer”. Rothstein’s photos of Herrin coal miners all include the following caption:
Williamson County, Illinois once produced 11,000,000 tons of coal a year, and led the state in output. Since 1923 output has steadily declined until now it falls short of 2,000,000 tons. At one time, sixteen mine whistles blowing to work could be heard from the center of Herrin. Now only two mines are working and these two will probably be abandoned within the next year. The Herrin office of the U.M.W.A. was once the most active in the state. Today it is no longer self sustaining. These pictures were taken in the Herrin U.M.W.A office on a day when the mines were not working –
Rothstein also included a photo of a UMWA official. The photo depicts an engaged and concerned union administrator, paired with perhaps an unemployed and demoralized union miner in the shadows behind him; a representation that fits nicely within the narrative of a down on your luck, “Forgotten Man” in need of assistance.
Many of the portraits (top of article) strike the same chord, employing harsh, low-key, artificial lighting from the side or below, not too far from a “film noir” look. The simple backgrounds, framing, and stark lighting also visually echo police mug shots.
The pictures of miners shanties and downtown Herrin demonstrate an approach that is quite different from the “mug shot” portraits. When the unemployed miners and their families are included in the frame, the photos are executed as environmental portraits to help illuminate their economic struggle. Rothstein frames the exterior shots of makeshift miners’ shanties against nearby slag piles from abandoned mines. In doing so, he draws a poignant parallel between these discarded workers, mine waste, and abandoned coal mines to show the wreckage wrought by this local economic catastrophe. Contrasting those ramshackle homes with Rothstein’s images of the relative prosperity of Herrin’s main street underscores that point.
The FSA/OWI collection is available online at the Library of Congress and is a wonderful resource. But one must exercise some care reviewing the collection because searches may not yield comprehensive results. For example, searching on the words “Rothstein” and “Coal” will return photos from Rothstein’s work in West Frankfort, IL and other places, but the search results omit many of the Herrin images.
There are also two books available that present the work of FSA photographers in Illinois:
Chicago and Downstate: Illinois As Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers, 1936-1943 featuring the work of John Vachon, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Esther Bubley, Theodor Jung, Carl Mydans, Ann Rosenor, & Edwin Rosskam
A Southern Illinois Album: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1936-1943 featuring the work of John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Arthur Siegel