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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Introducing America to Americans"

A worker at a carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas, 1942.
Photo by John Vachon.

Part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the United States was to create the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935 to deal with rural poverty.  Two years later this became the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  The initial goal was to move 650,000 people onto 100 million acres of land, mostly sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and very poor but landowning farmers.

Allie Mae Burroughs photographed in 1935 or 1936 by Walker Evans.

This was very unpopular with Congress because of its socialist overtones, unpopular with big farmers as it depleted their tenant workforce (and these successful farmers were very influential), and it ultimately failed since farmers wanted ownership of the land they were farming.  Under the FSA plan, farmers were to be brought together to work on large government-owned farms using "modern" techniques, supervised by "experts".

"American Gothic" portrait of cleaning woman Ella Watson
taken in 1942 by Gordon Parks.

Only a few thousand people or so were relocated.  Several greenbelt cities were built as models for a cooperative future that never came about.  The main focus became the building of relief camps for migratory workers, mostly from the drought-striken Dust Bowl of the Southwest, in California.  Ninety-five camps with clean quarters that had running water and other amenities were built.  They could only handle 750,000 people, so stays were temporary.

Migratory workers outside of a "juke joint" during the slack season in
Belle Glade, Florida, 1944, by Marion Post Wolcott.

The FSA's mission was not to aid farm production or prices, as there were already too many farmers and production was being discouraged by the government in order to increase prices.  The real agenda was to "modernize" rural America.  I'm thinking the really real agenda was to influence agricultural practices.

"Scenes of the northern Shenandoah Valley, including the RA's Shenandoah
Homesteads" by Ben Shahn, 1941.

"Modernization" is a concept dependent on pretty specific ideas which make anything else "wrong".  In this case, it was believed that certain practices led to economic success.  To this end, the poor farmers that this program attempted to help were supervised by "experts".  By buying into this, I wonder if it was a significant gain in organizing agriculture that lead to our current practices of GMO crops and the reliance on heavy chemicals.

Roundhouse wipers (women who cleaned locomotive engines) having
lunch in their rest room at the Chicago & North Western Railroad
in Clinton, Iowa, 1943.  Photo by Jack Delano.

After the war there wasn't a need for FSA, as there were so many factory jobs in the cities.  Housing programs were moved to the National Housing Agency by FDR in 1942.  In 1946 the FSA was replaced by a new agency, the Farmers Home Administration.  This agency's goal was to help finance farm purchases, especially by war veterans, with no personal oversight by "experts".  This was also part of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty in the 60s.

San Francisco, 1942 by Dorothea Lange.  The "I Am An American" sign was
placed in the window of a store at 13th and Franklin streets on Dec. 8th, the
day after Pearl Harbor, by the owner, a UC graduate of Japanese descent.  The
store was closed and the owner was housed in a War Relocation Authority
center for the duration of the war.

The best part of the FSA was the photography program.  The Information Division of the FSA, led by Roy Stryker, was to support the position that poverty could be controlled by "changing land practices".  Photographers and writers were hired to report and document the plight of the poor.

A fair at Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940, photo by Russell Lee.

250,000 images of rural poverty were taken.  Less than half of these have survived, and are housed in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.  These are available for viewing online, including negatives and some photographs that were not printed at that time.

The Ohio River floods Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.  Photo by Carl Mydans.

The LOC collection includes photos from other sources, both governmental and non-governmental, including the News Bureau at the Offices of Emergency Management (OEM), military branches, and industrial corporations.

A farmer and his two sons in a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma.
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

This photography program ran from 1935 - 1944, and was very influential.  These images appeared in popular magazines and are responsible for both documenting and creating our image of the times.  The three most famous photographers are probably Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks.

A market in the southwest waterfront area of Washingon, D.C.,
photographed by Louise Rosskam in 1941 or 1942.

The RA also funded two documentary films by Pare Lorentz:  The Plow That Broke the Plains deals with the creation of the Dust Bowl; and The River shows the importance of the Mississippi River.  Both films were selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the LOC, as they are considered "culturally significant".

African-American boy in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1942 or 1943, by John Vachon.

Today, everyone is a photographer especially with the advent of built-in cameras in cell phones.  This group of photographers was outstanding in the medium. What a unique time and place to be given free rein, and assignments (although with an agenda) that weren't just to take "pretty" pictures.  Their "voices" still tell a story, proving, once again, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

All photographs courtesy of the LOC.

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