The Masterful Documentary Photographers of the Farm Security Administration

“Insatiable curiosity, the kind that can get to the core of an assignment, the kind that can comprehend what a truck driver, or a farmer, or a driller or a housewife thinks and feels and translates those thoughts and feelings into pictures that can be similarly comprehended by anyone.” – Roy Stryker

Some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century were taken by a troop of photographers sponsored by the US government and employed by the offices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and later the Office of War Information (OWI). Their mission was to document American life as it was affected by the Great Depression, and later World War II. The result was a rich historical record of tens of thousands of photographs that defined a nation in transition.

A Brief History of the FSA

The office of The Resettlement Administration was established in 1935, and later replaced by the Farm Security Administration in 1937. It was established to aid displaced farmers and the rural poor during the Great Depression.

Roy Stryker headed the Historical Section in the Division of Information. He also led the agency’s Photographic Unit.

Some argued that the photography division was nothing more than a government propaganda machine. The reality was more complex. The social programs established by the FSA were desperately needed, but expensive to maintain. To garner the support of the American public and to maintain government funding, the New Deal programs of the Roosevelt Administration needed a human face. The resultant body of photographic work remains as a collection of the greatest American documentary photographs ever produced.

During WWII. the FSA’s photographic unit was relocated to the Office of War Information to help in the war effort. Later, Congress would disband the FSA and OWI. Eventually, all images were transferred to the Library of Congress.

Many talented photographers walked through the doors of the FSA/OWI, and in this article we intend to spotlight just a handful. We will focus on the outstanding work of Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, John Vachon, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee and Walker Evans.

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985)

Originally born in urban New York, Rothstein was famous for his pictures of rural and small town American life. He was the first photographer hired by Roy Stryker, and had earlier been his student while Stryker was a professor at Columbia University. He would later work for Look magazine and Parade magazine.

During this time with the FSA, his camera of choice was a Leica.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Born in New Jersey, Lange was a successful portrait photographer in San Francisco prior to joining the FSA. She would take one of the most iconic photographs that defined the depression era, “Migrant Mother” taken with the Graflex Super D camera.

During WWII she worked for the Office of War information and took over 800 pictures documenting America’s policy of forced internment of Japanese Americans. These photos were impounded for the duration of the war. She later commented, “They had wanted a record, but not a public record.”

John Vachon (1914-1975)

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Vachon originally was a file clerk at the offices of the FSA. There he developed a passion for photography and was encouraged to pick up a camera by Stryker and other established photographers. Some of his best work was his portraits of children, often made from their vantage point. He later worked for Look magazine and stayed there until 1971. His pictures of Marilyn Monroe are probably his most famous from this period.

He predominantly used a Leica.

Russell Lee (1903-1986)

Born in Illinois, Lee was known for being one of the most prolific photographers at the FSA. He produced thousands of images while employed there. He is celebrated for his attention to detail and photos showingcasing the beauty and the vastness of the American West. Later, he would become an instructor of photography at the University of Texas.

He is known as a user of Contax cameras.

Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Born in Fort Scott, Kansas. Parks came to the FSA in 1942. He had prior experience shooting portraits and fashion. As the only African American photographer working for the FSA in the highly racially segregated Washington DC, Stryker suggested that he use his camera to put a face on racism, and that is what he did throughout the course of his career.

Parks was a trailblazer, a photographer for Vogue, a composer, an author and a film director. He was the first black director of a major Hollywood film. He directed Shaft in 1971.

Park seemed to have no loyalty to any one brand and used several cameras during his long career, the most well-known were Rolleiflex TLRs and the Nikon F series of cameras.

Walker Evans (1903-1975)

Walker was born to an affluent family in St. Louis, Missouri. He worked as an advertising, documentary and freelance photographer prior to joining the FSA. His work for the FSA took him from the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to the deep south. Conflicts with Stryker over what should be photographed eventually led to his firing. Evans later became a writer for Timean editor for Fortune and an educator at the Yale University School of Art.

Through the course of his photographic career he used Contax, Leica, Rollieflex and 8×10 cameras.

Other notable photographers who worked for the FSA/OWI:

Jack Delano

Ben Shahn

Marion Post Wolcott

Carl Medans

Elmer “Ted” Johnson

Louise Rosskam

Esther Bubley

From the creation of the Resettlement Administration in 1935 to the dissolution of the Office of War Information in 1945 approximately 250,000 images were taken. However, less than half have survived. Fortunately, the developed negatives that have remained being preserved by The Library of Congress. Many are available to the public online for download or to have prints made.

Never again will photography be supported to this extent by the government to give witness to American life. A few former photographers of the FSA tried to petition the government to develop photography programs similar to the Photographic Unit at the FSA, but they were not successful. The images created were truly a time capsule and a window into the lives of countless Americans showingcasing their sorrows, resilience and strength.

For more stories on photos and the people who shoot them, check out the many series we’ve published over the years below!

Featured Photophile – we shine a spotlight on amateur photographers whose work we love.

Photographer Interviews – in-depth discussions with professional and established photos doing great work.

Female Photographers to Follow – get inspired by a monthly series focused on the beautiful and unique perspectives of female photographers.

Five Favorite Photos – a hand-selected examination of the oeuvre of our favorite famous photographers.

Follow Casual Photophile on YouTube, TwitterFacebook and Instagram

[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

Leave a Comment