History of Photography

Politicians, Pork, and Photographers

Published October 14, 2012

How the Government Accidentaly Created the Golden Age of American Photography


“Corn Along a River” Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. Library of Congress.


“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”  — Mark Twain

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
? Groucho Marx

My overview of American government goes generally like this:

  1. Something happens.
  2. The government passes some laws in response to it, adds on a few pork projects, and raises taxes to pay for the laws and the pork.
  3. The laws (or pork) cause an entirely new problem.
  4. Repeat.

The usual outcome of this cycle is that every year we have more laws and higher taxes. But every so often, some accidental side effect occurs and something awesomely good happens. So it was during the alphabet-soup days of New Deal government during the Great Depression. The accidental side effect was the Golden Age of American Photography. How it happened is rather interesting.

Farmers, the Great Depression, and the New Deal

Even before the Crash of 1929, farmers in America were struggling. American farmers produced so much food during the 1920s that prices dropped so low that they could barely support themselves. Many farmers responded by increasing production even more, trying to make up for narrower margins with higher quantities.

Once the Great Depression had begun, prices dropped so low that it often wasn’t worth the cost of transporting the crops to market. In some areas farmers burned corn instead of wood or coal in their stoves. In 1933, the American government responded by passing the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid farmers to NOT grow crops. The idea was that having fewer crops grown would decrease supply and raise prices, supporting agriculture. It also arranged low interest loans for farmers to buy equipment like tractors, increasing their efficiency.

It worked as well as most government interventions. Many landowners accepted government payouts instead of planting. What hadn’t occurred to the government was that most of the actual farming was done by tenant farmers. Since the landowner was getting paid to not farm, he had no use for the tenants. Even if he continued to farm, the landowner could take advantage of the new loan programs and buy a tractor that could replace several tenant farmers who plowed with their mules.


“Power Farming Displaces Tenants” Dorothea Lange, 1938. Library of Congress. 


Now thousands of tenant farmers were homeless. The Government responded, as governments do, by creating the Resettlement Administration with the goal of moving 650,000 people to new farms. The program was controversial and poorly funded. All it accomplished was building 95 camps that provided housing to about 75,000 migrant farm workers, mostly in California. To top things off, in 1936, the Supreme Court decided the Agricultural Adjustment Act was unconstitutional.

Presented with this new problem, Congress responded by creating the Farm Security Administration, which took over for both the Agricultural Adjustment and Resettlement Administrations. This program was no more popular than its predecessors at first, and seen by many as an effort to bring Socialism to American agriculture.

Politicians will be politicians, though, and Franklin D. Roosevelt (and a lot of Democratic Congressmen) was up for reelection. Bureaucrats will be bureaucrats and protect their agencies and jobs.  So the FSA opened an Information Division to ‘educate’ the public about all the good it was doing. The resulting propaganda blitz was more successful than they could have hoped.

Stryker’s Plan

Rexford Tugwell, the head of the Resettlement and Farm Security Administration, hired an ex-student, Roy Stryker to “to enhance the public’s perception of the federal aid programs for the destitute.” He was to show American voters that the Depression was everywhere, that government intervention on a national level was the only way to deal with it, and that government programs were working.

In the 1930’s, there was no internet or television. What people saw came mostly from pictures in magazines and newspapers. This was the era when glossy-photo magazines became widespread. Fortune, Look, and Life all started as photojournalism magazines in the 1930s.

Stryker’s plan was simple and effective. He knew that photographers were largely out of work because of the Depression, since newspapers and magazines had cut back staffs and people couldn’t afford either portraits or artistic photographs.

Stryker hired a number of excellent photographers on fairly simple terms. He gave them great cameras, unlimited supplies of film or plates, a small expense allowance, and some degree of artistic freedom. The photographers jumped at the chance, partly because there were so few opportunities available, partly because the work was interesting, and partly because many of them found it attractive politically.

Stryker would assign a photographer an area of the country and a general ‘shoot list’ documenting some aspect of American life in that region. He sent his photographers books and background materials before each assignment, outlined the projects in general, but then let the photographers work as they thought best.

Photographers sent all of their images to the FSA for processing. They also gave all rights to the FSA, although they could keep copies of prints or negatives for themselves. The majority of the time Stryker controlled the images totally — the negatives were sent to the central office for development and Stryker’s staff chose which images were circulated.


“One of Chris Adolph’s Children”. Dorothea Lange, 1938. Library of Congress.


Stryker approached various newspapers and magazines and offered them photographic essays at absolutely no cost. Most of them, having cut back their photography departments in the Depression, were happy to use free FSA photos, of which almost 270,000 were taken.

There were some exceptions where Stryker directed his photographers to work directly with regional newspapers. Dorothea Lange, for example, developed her Migrant Mother images and sent them directly to local California newspapers. That explains why the local California papers showed this photograph . . .


“Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two” Dorothea Lange, 1936. Library of Congress.


. . . while the rest of the country (and we today) are used to seeing this image.


“Migrant Mother” Dorothea Lange, 1936. Library of Congress

In a way, the project actually went viral, although they didn’t use such terms back then. Fortune, at least, sent its own teams of photographers and journalists on similar photographic missions.

The Photographers

The list of FSA Photographers is basically a Who’s Who of American photographers. Some, like Dorothea LangeMargaret Bourke-White, and Walker Evans were well known before their work for FSA. Others, like Arthur RothsteinGordon ParksMarion Post-WolcottRussell Lee, and Jack Delano largely got their start through the FSA. As a group, they are some of the most influential photographers in the 20th Century.

These photographers, and others who followed them, defined the genre of documentary photography. Their images defined a critical time in history and explored techniques that guided photography for a generation. They also demonstrated just how powerfully photography could influence society.

For the first time, northeastern city dwellers actually saw the living conditions of poor tenant farmers and migrant workers.  People on the West Coast saw that those on the East Coast were faring no better than they.


“Negro men and women working in a field, Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation, Natchitoches Louisiana” Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. LIbrary of Congress


“Farmer and Sons in Dust Storm” Arthur Rothsein, 1936. Library of Congress


How Did That Work Out for You, Roy?

Stryker, a man with a mission, tried to control his photographers – but given the group he was working with, that was doomed to total failure. Walker Evans, for example, would accept an assignment, go to that general area, and then photograph whatever he found appealing, whether it had anything to do with the assignment or not.

Stryker was quite a liberal for the time, hiring several female photographers and taking the unheard of (at the time) step of hiring a black photographer (Gordon Parks). It seems he assumed they would all be grateful at the opportunity and do whatever he told them. That didn’t quite work out.

Marion Post Wolcott may have provided some of the best images of the FSA photographers, but she apparently accounted for most of Stryker’s gray hair. In one letter to Post-Wolcott, it appears he might not have been quite as liberal as he seemed, telling her, “Slacks aren’t part of your attire. You’re a woman and a woman should never dress like a man.” and “You can’t depend on the wiles of femininity in the wilds of the South” (correspondence January 13th, 1939). I would love to have seen his face when she wrote back, “Skirts do not have pockets and I’m sure you’ll agree it would be inappropriate for me to keep film rolls and filters stuffed in my blouse between my titties.”


Untitled. Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress.


Gordon Parks (later the director of the 1970’s Shaft movies), who moved to Washington, D. C. from Seattle and Chicago, said later “I experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I never expected to experience.” He met cleaning woman Ella Watson and created his photograph “American Gothic, 1942” as a response to the open prejudice he experienced. To his credit, Stryker simply said, “that picture could get us all fired” but didn’t destroy the image.


“American Gothic, 1942” Gordon Parks, Library of Congress


Marion Post Wolcott, in one correspondence, called her assignments “FSA cheesecake.” Stryker eventually said “most of what the photographers have to do to stay on the payroll was routine stuff showing what a good job the agencies were doing out in the field. They are free to spend a day here, a day there, to get other images.”  Not surprising, it was the ‘other images’ that often were the best, but probably gave our boy Roy an ulcer or three.

Post-Wolcott and others spent significant amounts of time documenting things the administration didn’t particularly wish documented, especially racial inequality and the squalid living conditions of rural African Americans.


“Colored entrance of the Crescent Theatre in Belzoni, Mississippi”. Marion Post Wolcott, 1939. Library of Congress


Margaret Bourke-White’s picture of African Americans waiting in a breadline under a billboard featuring a white family in their new car certainly caused some distress back in Washington —  FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein had designed the billboard.


“American Way”. Margaret Bourke-White, 1939. 


In the long run, Dorothea Lange caused probably the biggest stir. In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography. At the outbreak of World War II she gave up her fellowship to document the internment of Japanese Americans in relocation camps. The Army impounded and classified all of her images, most of which weren’t released until 40 years later. (They have recently been published in book form.)


Internment Camp at Manzaner” Dorothea Lange, 1942


Dorothea Lange, 1942

The Spin-Off Books

There was similar work being done outside of the FSA. Novelist Erskine Caldwell wrote controversial novels of the Old South. His wife, Margaret Bourke White, was a premier photographer of the day, the first staff photographer for Fortune Magazine. The two travelled through the South creating the book You Have Seen Their Faces featuring her photographs and his captions. The book, published in 1937, was widely read and critically acclaimed. Later, when it was found that Caldwell and Bourke-White had made up the photograph’s captions, which appeared to be factual, the book was discredited to some degree.

In one of the more bizarre stories of depression-era photography, Fortune Magazine writer James Agee talked the magazine into letting him spend several weeks in rural Alabama, supposedly reporting on the recovery of cotton farming. He also talked them into hiring photographer Walker Evans to take the photographs. Evans was at the time an FSA photographer. It is unclear if he was on loan to Fortune, between assignments, or most likely double-dipping employment. In any case the photos taken ended up in the Library of Congress archives.

Agee was very liberal (he later described himself as “a great deal more a communist than not”) and apparently hated his job at Fortune. He wrote the article far longer than the magazine could possibly publish and from a subversive point of view he knew they would not publish. As he expected, the magazine killed the story.  He and Evans published it in book form (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) in 1941, but it was not immediately popular since it was felt to be a knock-off of You Have Seen Their Faces. It was republished in 1960, and several times since, and to this day is considered one of the greatest photo documentary works ever made.


“Allie Mae Burroughs” Walker Evans, 1936, Library of Congress


“Field Family” Walker Evans, 1936. Library of Congress


The Outcome

Despite the amazing work done by the FSA photographers, the agency itself remained constantly controversial. In 1943, Congress demanded it be disbanded and its services reorganized into existing bureaucracies. Stryker, fearing that enemies of his agency would destroy all of the photographs, donated 107,000 negatives to the Library of Congress before the agency disbanded. So in the sense of its original purpose, to show the Agency was doing great work, the project failed.

Stryker, interestingly enough, was immediately hired by Standard Oil Company to undertake a similar project to repair their tarnished reputation. He used several of his FSA photographers in this work, collecting 67,000 images over 8 years.

The subjects of the photographs didn’t benefit directly. After Lange’s Migrant Mother images appeared in California papers, tons of food were delivered to the migrant camp. Florence Owens Thompson, the woman pictured in Migrant Mother, had already moved to a new camp, trying to find work. The subjects of Evans and Agee’s book never benefitted (and their offspring remained bitter about their ‘exploitation’ for many years).

In fact, generally the subjects of the photographs were not impressed by either the photographer’s or government’s efforts on their behalf.

 “There was plenty of people who couldn’t get a living out of a farm long before the Government heard about it.”  

Erskine Caldwell: You Have Seen Their Faces. 1937.

They simply endured and persevered, generally with dignity and pride.

The photographers, however, benefitted greatly. Dorothea Lange became the first fine art photographer on the faculty of the California School of Fine Art. Gordon Parks’ career can’t be covered in a few sentences: he was remarkably successful as a photographer, filmmaker, writer, and composer. Walker Evans became a writer for Time magazine and a faculty member at Yale University School of Fine Art. Arthur Rothstein was director of photography for Look magazine. I could go on for quite a while: the FSA photographers were among the most successful American photographers of the 20th Century.

Whether or not you think the program made a social difference probably depends more on your current politics than anything else. But what it did provide was amazing documentation of what life was like during the Great Depression. Anyone who feels sorry for themselves in the current hard economic times just has to look at those images for a while to feel perhaps things aren’t so bad  today.

Further Reading

Author’s note: If you’re interested in any of these, I strongly urge buying the actual book. The images don’t translate well to electronic readers, even my beloved iPad.

  1. Agee, A and Evans, W: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Houghton Mifflin, 1939.  The text is overlong and rather syrupy. The images are amazing, disturbing, and inspiring. You can find inexpensive used copies everywhere. 
  2. Caldwell, E and Bourke-White, M: You Have Seen Their Faces. Brown Thrasher Books, 1995. The text is really good, the images even better. But realize the text is fiction. 
  3. Goldberg, V: Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography. Addison-Wesley, 1987. It’s a long book. I used it as a reference – I can’t read it cover-to-cover.
  4. Gordon, L and Okihiro, G: Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. W. W. Norton, NY, 2006. The photographs aren’t as artistic or moving as some of her other work. But it is amazingly educational about a chapter in American history they didn’t teach me (or you) in school. 
  5. Gordon, Linda: Dorothea Lange: A Life Without Limits. W. W. Norton, NY, 2009. Not quite as long as Bourke-White’s biography, rather more interesting. Few pictures, so this one is a good Kindle read. 
  6. Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/background.html  History of the Farm Security Administration.
  7. http://www.oberlin.edu/library/papers/honorshistory/2001-Gorman/FSA/FSAhistory/fsahist3.html
  8. Nau, T: Walker Evans. Photographer of America. Roaring Book Press. Short, perhaps superficial text, but filled with amazing photography. 


Roger Cicala


October 2012

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in History of Photography
  • I read each and every new article as soon as it’s posted here thanks to Twitter but somehow I had missed this gem. This part of general history and photographic history has always fascinated me and Roger’s take on it is just as good as I expected when I saw the title. Jack Delano worked here in Puerto Rico for many years and he actually lived here after retiring. He took thousands of pictures depicting a painful chapter in puerto rican history, just as the other photographers did back in the US. Their pictures remind us where we come from and the beauty and power a single photograph can hold, even if what it depicts isn’t “positive”. Thanks for another great read, Roger.

  • Wil

    Great article. Thanks for taking the time to do it. I’ll have to stop by your blog more often.

  • LB

    Excellent article. Also, the PBS documentary “Documenting the Face of America” is a must see.

  • GD Edwards

    That was a good and interesting article Roger. Thanks and keep them coming. -ge

  • intrnst

    Whether or not w’all think this essay made it good and unbiased probably depends more on our current politics than anything else.

  • “Charles Agee” should be “James Agee”.

    “Manzaner” should be “Manzanar”.

    You can order copies of any of these from the Library of Congress. Want to own a own Walker Evans photo? You can. I’m somewhat fond of “Ruin of tabby (shell) construction, St. Mary’s, Georgia” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91727648/

  • Great article Roger, you have a way of telling photographic history that even a southern story teller would enjoy!

  • Richard

    Very very interesting Roger (as always). And some great images. Tom Joad indeed.

  • Tom L

    Thanks for taking the time to write this
    and providing all the references.
    Many things I did not know. Good stuff.

  • Thanks for the lesson, on multiple levels: history, photography, and making the most of your opportunities.

  • A. Lurker

    I can only recommend “The Worst Hard Time”.

  • Just to be clear: any product of the US Government (that’s not currently classified) is a part of the “public domain” i.e. it has no copyright and is not owned by anyone.

    If you are employed by the Federal Goverment in the US (as the photographers in the FSA were) the photos you take are “works for hire” and so any copyright is owned by the “hiring agent” but as the US government can’t hold copyrights on the work it has created for itself those photos are in the public domain.

    That’s why the photos are LOC are free to download. You can do whatever you want with them. Make a book out of them. Print them. Modify them so an alien appears in the background. Make a collage.

    One other point is there was fair amount of color photography taken by the FSA. It’s very revealing when you are so used to seeing “poor folks” in black and white. They turn into real people in color.

    Final point, weekly photo magazines originated in Germany (in Berlin) under the Weimar Republic. Ii wasn’t an American invention. The Leica “minature” camera (now “full frame” i.e. 35mm 🙂 trigered this boom in photojournalism. This wasn’t lost on enterprising American (and British … “Picture Post” and so on) publishers. The new small 35mm cameras meant that PJs could go places and take extended numbers of shots (36 on a roll!) to make coherent stories. This was a step up from the 4×5 Speed Graphic cameras with reversible plates that were the PJ staple of the time and lasted into WW2.

  • This is a fine personal essay on a pivotal period in US documentary photography–an essay energized by its grit and irreverence and evidence of human friction, rather than repeating the sanitized and generic solemnities about the FSA that some of us have read many times.

    There’s an October-December 2012 exhibit of 60-some FSA photographs at the Amarillo Art Museum (home to a lot of Russell Lee’s work), including some A/V of some the surviving photographers in the 1980s(?). http://www.amarilloart.org/. For some reason, the online version of the exhibit (Dust and Depression) is not live now, though it was last week.

    Another site for readers who want more agricultural context for the FSA’s work is at Nebraska’s Living History Farm: http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_14.html.

  • Werner Orwat


  • Jan Anne

    I am reading this story as a non-american, and found it amazingly interesting. Especially the conclusion that the agency didn’t profit from the photographs, and neither the people themselves. The photographer profited most and get most of the credits.

  • John

    Another great article Roger. Its to bad that some only see the politics rather than the history that I think was your intent.

  • Siegfried

    Dear Roger,

    (good morning and) thank you very much!


  • Roger Cicala


    Sorry for the bias, but in case it came through as ‘for’ anything I’d like to correct: I’m ‘anti’ everything political. I think all parties and forms of government are, at best, inept. I’m grateful for political humor, it makes it all more bearable.

    As to the New Deal stuff, I’m in awe of the accomplishments of the Public Works administration – the U. S. infrastructure became what it was then. I’m far less impressed with the farm programs and I think the decade of fighting over them certainly indicates they weren’t a smashing success. Better than nothing? Probably so. Well thought out and effective? Probably not.


  • The photography part of this is interesting, but the rest — all the “stupid, evil government screws up over and over and then uses that as an excuse to your taxes” — is just bogus Tea Party myth-history.

    Reading this kind of thing on a lens website reminds me of Jeremy Clarkson’s explanation of why they never let The Stig talk on “Top Gear.”

  • Roger Cicala


    Beyond even passing them off as their own, with a lot of these images there’s some question over exactly who shot them. Understandable when you consider the number of negatives the archivists have to go through.

  • Dwaine Dibbly

    Interesting article, but frankly, I would have liked it better and found it more convincing without the obvious political bias.

  • carl

    Very excellent post, Mr. C.

    I have some of these images as you can download them from the Library of Congress. You have to look around a bit if you want a large size because some images files are large (e.g. 80 or 100 Mb tiffs saved to 16 or 24 Mb jpegs) while you might find the same image elsewhere at only, for example, 300 kb. There’s no charge for these images (although I have purchased a book with some of them) and I just use them for my own personal use. I imagine some unsavory person could print and try to pass (the less well known) images off as his/her own.

  • Randy Schwartz

    Thanks for yet another interesting article.
    BTW: Even my mother (hardly a photographer) appreciated the importance of photography. During WWII, while living with her in-laws, she returned home one day with some film. Apparently, my grandparents were not very happy with that: “We barely have enough money to eat, and you by film?” My mother replied: “Money you can always find, but finding film is much more difficult.” Surely, she understood the need for documentation!

  • Matt

    Nicely put.

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