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Before and After: Photographs of Rural America in the Depression

In order to promote its programs designed to help impoverished rural citizens and restore the land, the FSA launched a massive propaganda machine.

Before and After:  Photographs of Rural America in the Depression

Photo: Dorothea Lang (1895–1965)

Photo by Dorothea Lange (1895–1965). Part of a family on relief, Memphis, Texas, June 1937. From the Roy Stryker Study Collection, Henry Holmes Smith Archive

News about the way the economic downturn is affecting our fellow citizens can seem abstract if it’s not happening in our own backyard. In the 1930s, policy makers facing the same challenge found a way to tackle it—through photography. Depression-era photographs in the collection of the Indiana University Art Museum were created intentionally to unsettle the viewer.

“They needed to show how people were suffering,” explained Nan Brewer, Lucienne Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at the museum, which owns over 800 of these photos.

This mandate came from the Farm Security Administration, one of the New Deal agencies created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The FSA emerged out of the Resettlement Administration in 1937, when Congress passed the Farm Security Act.

One of the primary goals of the FSA was to buy unproductive land from farmers and to resettle them, under the guidance of government experts.

In order to promote its programs and initiatives, designed to help impoverished rural citizens and restore the land, the FSA launched a massive propaganda machine.

“Part of the mission of the FSA was to publicize what they were doing,” explained Bob Goehlert, specialist librarian for economics, political science and criminal justice at Indiana University. “In 1940 more than 1400 images per month appeared in publications. The method was to send photographers out and shoot ‘before and after’ scenes to show the need for action, and also the result of FSA programs, such as the effect of a loan.”

“That helped the government agencies to promote their political agenda,” Brewer added, “which was to get people supportive of these economic initiatives and help the farmers and people in small town America.”

Roy Stryker was in charge of the FSA’s so-called “historical” division, which took the photos and arranged for their dissemination. Stryker had relationships with all the major newspapers and magazines, where the photos would appear. In addition, Stryker organized a multi-tiered exhibition schedule, that toured the photos everywhere from international expositions to state fairs.

The photographers employed by the FSA are names that have come down to us as the pioneers of the medium: Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Arthur Rothstein, among others. On top of their sheer formal strength, their photos conveyed their meaning because of the credibility the medium held at the time.

“They used these images as historic records,” Brewer explained. “People had a great trust in photography as being truthful. More than paintings, more than drawings, people really felt that this was authentic.”

Mr. and Mrs. Andy Bahain, FSA borrowers on their farm near Kersey, Colorado. Plate 7 from A Portfolio of 8 Original Prints by Arthur Rothstein

Mr. and Mrs. Andy Bahain, FSA borrowers on their farm near Kersey, Colorado. Plate 7 from A Portfolio of 8 Original Prints by Arthur Rothstein

Nonetheless, these photos were clearly not artless slices of life. The photographers were, above all, aesthetes, very conscious of composition, tonal arrangement, and other formal considerations that enhanced the pictures’ iconicity or emotional tenor. And there was even an element of staging the subject, which Roy Stryker encouraged through so-called “shooting scripts”.

Although the pictures exist somewhere between art and journalism, their effect on the development of photography is indisputable.

“There were over a quarter million negatives produced by the FSA,” Brewer explained. “It certainly had a major impact on a documentary style of photography.”

By dint of a friendship between Roy Stryker and Henry Holmes Smith, the first professor of photography at IU, a Stryker’s personal study collection of more than 800 prints wound up at the university. When they’re not on display, the photos may be perused, by appointment, in the museum’s print study room.

The Roy Stryker Study Collection in the museum’s Henry Holmes Smith Archive includes works from the Farm Security Administration, among other agencies.

In addition, a selection of the photos has been published in the museum’s catalogue The People’s America, with an historical essay by IU Professor of Journalism Claude Cookman.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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