FSA-OWI Photography Project

Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.  Dorothea Lange, February 1936, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection.

According to the Library of Congress:

The photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA)-Office of War Information (OWI), transferred to the Library of Congress in 1944, form an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1943. This U.S. government photography project was headed by Roy E. Stryker, formerly an economics instructor at Columbia University, and engaged such photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, John Vachon, and Carl Mydans. The project initially documented the Resettlement Administration’s cash loans to individual farmers, and the agency’s construction of planned suburban communities. The second stage focused on the lives of sharecroppers in the South and of migratory agricultural workers in the midwestern and western states. As the scope of the project expanded, the photographers turned to recording rural and urban conditions throughout the United States and mobilization efforts for World War II.

Arthurdale is one of the best documented projects in the FSA-OWI Collection.

Roy Emerson Stryker (1893-1975) served as the head of the Resettlement Administration’s (RA) photographic project, which became known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. The photographic project started in the summer of 1935 and continued until 1943. During this period photographers documented life in America in all 48 states. In 1942, the Historical Section of the FSA, under budgetary constraints, became a photographic division of the Office of War Information (OWI). Stryker resigned in 1943 and the complete collection of photographs (approximately 270,000 negatives and 77,000 prints) were transferred to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC in 1944.

Walker Evans (1903-1975) was originally contracted to photograph Arthurdale for the Department of the Interior prior to becoming a contracted photographer for the FSA from Octber 1935 to the summer of 1938. During this time he photographed Arthurdale as well as other FSA projects in Pennsylvania and Alabama.

Ben Shahn (1898-1969) photographed in the rural southern and the mid-west United States for the Historical Section of the RA/FSA fFrom 1935 to 1938. Shahn was actually employed by the Special Skills section of the RA to prepare murals and exhibits. One of his murals is located in the Roosevelt School Building in Roosevelt, New Jersey, a sister New Deal homestead cooperative originally named the Jersey Homesteads. The name was changed to Roosevelt in 1944 after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While creating the mural, Shahn enjoyed the area and the people in Roosevelt, NJ, he later settled there.

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) was hired by the FSA after graduating from Columbia University. White at Columbia, Rothstein founded the university’s photography club. In 1940,¬†Look magazine hired him as a staff photographer and he later became the magazine’s Director of Photography. While a FSA photographer, Rothstein believed it was his job to document the problems of the Depression so that the government could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.

John Vachon (1914- ) was originally hired in 1936 by the FSA as an “assistant messenger.” One of his responsibilities was to catalog the pictures that were being taken through the photography project. The more photos he cataloged, the more his interest in photography grew and the FSA eventually hired him as a photographer in 1938. His contribution to the FSA Arthurdale collection consists of only one photo. Vachon later became a professional photographer for Look magazine, under Rothstein, and produced feature stories for almost twenty years.

Elmer “Ted” Johnson served as a photographer working for the Department of the Interior’s Division of Subsistence Homesteads. He began photographing Arthurdale as early as 1934, depicting the initial site, the early houses (both exterior and interior), as well as photos of daily life. When the small photographic unit of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads was transferred to the FSA, Johnson became one of the first FSA photographers.

Edwin Locke was employed by the FSA from 1935 to 1937 as Stryker’s assistant. He was not a major photographer but his coverage in film of Arthurdale is the most thorough.