The Farm Security Administration (FSA) began as the Resettlement Administration 1935 before being renamed in 1937. It was set up as an umbrella organisation to coordinate relief efforts in various government departments to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression that began in 1929.
Roy Stryker oversaw the photographic section of the FSA and employed a number of photographers to document the work of the FSA. His aim for this section was to create “a smooth system in which full-time photographers exhaustively covered the agency’s good works around the country” (Marien,2014:278). Photographers employed by the FSA during the period 1935 to 1944 included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Walcott, and in later years Gordon Parks, Esther Bubley and Jack Delano.
Although Stryker had very fixed ideas of how the FSA photographs should publicize the good works of the government, the photographers themselves often had their own ideas about what would make a good image. Liz Wells describes how once the photographers were out on assignments they “often returned very different kinds of photographs to those that were expected” (Wells,2009:97). Walker Evans, who was among the first to be hired by the FSA, “believed in finding scenes and objects whose appearance implied a story or acted as a metaphor for an attitude toward life” (Marien,2014:279), and favoured photographing “anything that made up everyday life” (Bate,2016:67). His photographs in “Walker Evans at Work” demonstrate a definite empathy for his subjects, as well as wanting to show locations simply as they are.
Dorothea Lange joined FSA at the same time as Evans but brought a “sure sense of social justice and how photography could reveal inequality” (Marien,2014:281). Her most famous image, ‘Migrant Mother’ was very carefully framed and then retouched to show her subject – Florence Owens Thompson – in way that highlighted the suffering of an entire generation.
Arthur Rothstein also began working for RA/FSA from its inception. Although his most resonant image is of a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, his reputation became overshadowed by a controversy over a photograph he took of a steer skull in South Dakota, which he admitted to moving in order to make for a better composition. This admission caused a row over the objective truthfulness of photography, although he was not alone in altering his work in post-production. His was just the most well-known example.
Ben Shahn was not exclusively a photographer and came to work for the FSA on the recommendation of Walker Evans. Originally from Lithuania, Shahn shared the same concerns for social justice as Evans. These concerns are evident in hi 1935 photograph ‘Boone County, Arkansas. The family of a Resettlement Administration client in the doorway of their home’.
Marion Post (later Marion Post Wolcott) joined the FSA on the recommendation of Ralph Steiner. Her work often demonstrated her concern for political aspects to poverty and deprivation.
Gordon Parks became interested in photography after seeing work by Dorothea Lange in a magazine while working as a railway porter. In later years he became involved in, and documented, the civil rights movement. He joined the FSA in later years, working initially on a project to photograph the life of the woman who cleaned the FSA offices.
Esther Bubley was not directly involved with the FSA, but was hired by Roy Stryker for the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942 after the photographic unit was transferred there from the FSA. As with the other FSA photographers she brought a strong social concern to her work. She especially photographed the role of women in the war effort, and focussed more on how women coped with the circumstances rather than simple depictions of poverty.
Jack Delano was a later arrival at the FSA, and then on to the OWI. Born in Ukraine he developed parallel careers as a photographer and composer. His work for the OWI included documenting the migration of people towards urban locations to work on the war effort.
Marien, M. W. (2014) Photography, Fourth Edition: A Cultural History. (01 edition) (s.l.): Laurence King Publishing.
Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. (4 edition) (s.l.): Routledge.
Bate, D. (2016) Photography (The Key Concepts). (2nd Revised Edition) (s.l.): Bloomsbury Academic.
Walker Evans at Work (1983) (s.l.): Thames & Hudson, London.
Wikipedia contributors (2020) Ben Shahn. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ben_Shahn&oldid=953068095 (Accessed 27/05/2020).
Esther Bubley – Biography (s.d.) At: https://www.estherbubley.com/bio_frame_set.htm (Accessed 27/05/2020).
Wikipedia contributors (2020a) Esther Bubley. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Esther_Bubley&oldid=951861007 (Accessed 27/05/2020).
Wikipedia contributors (2020b) Gordon Parks. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gordon_Parks&oldid=957728747 (Accessed 27/05/2020).
Wikipedia contributors (2020c) Jack Delano. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jack_Delano&oldid=953087768 (Accessed 27/05/2020).
Wikipedia contributors (2020d) Marion Post Wolcott. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marion_Post_Wolcott&oldid=955225874 (Accessed 27/05/2020).