During a seven-year period, starting the Great Depression and extending into World War II, sixteen talented photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) recorded more than 270,000 images of daily life in America.
Often, these photographers would be asked by their subjects why they wanted to take their picture.
“For history,” some of them replied.
Larry A. Viskochil mentions this in his opening remarks for Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943, which he co-edited with Robert L. Reid.
It’s an answer that goes to the core of the FSA effort.
The subjects of the FSA photographs tended to be those hardest hit by the harsh economic times and least likely to make a record of their own of what they were going through. They were, in other words, the sort of people who are easily lost to history.
The lives of the common people
Consider simply the question of clothing:
It’s easy enough to know what King Henry VIII and other royals of his era wore. They posed for many paintings that have survived. But what did the common people put on in the morning or, for that matter, upon going to bed? That’s much more difficult to answer since they weren’t having their portraits painted.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the proliferation of relatively cheap cameras and developing — snapshots — meant that the daily lives of a large segment of American society were being extensively documented. This didn’t hold, however, for the poor, especially after the nation was hit by the Depression.
“Previously neglected” segments of society
The FSA craftsmen — who included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Carl Mydans — were photojournalists (or photographer-historians) who were “eager to show all segments of society, even previously neglected ones,” writes Viskochil.
Although the main focus was on rural life and poverty, photographers also examined the way city folks lived, especially the poor and others often overlooked. That’s why more than half of the nearly two hundred images in Chicago and Downstate were shot in Bronzeville (more commonly called the Black Belt), the main African-American neighborhood in Chicago, as well as black areas elsewhere in the state.
Chicago and Downstate was published in 1989. I don’t know when the copy I read was printed, but the images were overly dark. Perhaps, the reproductive quality in other copies was better.
Luckily, nearly all of the images in the book as well as tens of thousands more are available through the Library of Congress at the FSA website. That’s where I obtained the images from the book that I reproduce here.
History in images
So what is the sort of history that is available in the FSA images?
Look at this photograph by John Vachon of 65-year-old Billy Williams, a squatter who built his own shack in Washington County. Look at the wallpaper. Look at the calendar. Look at the tie he wears.
Here’s an image by Russell Lee of Saturday night in a South Side bar room in 1941 Chicago. That smile tells many stories.
This is a detail from a photo by Arthur Rothstein of a choir at a revival meeting at a Pentecostal church in Cambria. On the one hand, it says that people who are singing look the same way whatever the setting. On the other, look at the boy’s button sweater — handmade with touches of color.
Here is a detail from a Lee photograph in Chicago of what city-dwellers used to call stoop-sitting. You can still see it today although, because of widespread air conditioning, much less often. The art of the photograph is how Lee has captured a moment in which the face and posture of each of the four people seems to contain an entire novel.
Each of the images in Chicago and Downstate feel infused with character, setting and story, as if each were from a novel or, perhaps, contained in themselves an entire novel.
Often, in the mainstream public discourse, the poor are characterized as failures — certainly failures in achieving the American Dream. Yet, here are three images in which the humanity of the subjects shines.
In the first, taken in Ziegler by Rothstein, an unemployed miner and his wife are shown with their nine children. They pose together in a way that seems to heighten their communal reliance on each other, and to show the family as holding the mother and the new baby in the center of their protection.
In the second, a detail of a Lee photo, a mother cradles her nearly asleep son in her arms with her wrists protectively crossed before him. Her daughter is clear-eyed with an almost challenging gaze while the mother’s look is softened, as if she takes comfort from touching her cheek against her son’s short hair.
In the third, Jack Delano has created a portrait of railroad worker Frank Williams in which the father of eight looks like an Old Testament prophet or a Greek god. It is an image that could stand for the American nation, then and now.
A great novelist would have to work long and hard to create a character as richly nuanced at the people depicted in the following three photographs.
The first is a detail from a Rothstein image, showing a former coal miner now working for the Works Projects Administration. His hands under the coverall, his sharp chin and his direct eyes tell many stories.
The second is a detail from a Lee photograph, showing a man on a Danville street. Is the stick to help him walk? Is it for protection?
The third was taken by Lee on Easter Sunday, 1941. It shows three young women in their Easter best waiting outside an Episcopal church for the start of the holy day procession. They are young women down all the centuries that have gone and up all the centuries to come, waiting to show their finery and flirt and bask in the glow of youth and glamor.
Patrick T. Reardon