This section should introduce you to the study of FSA photography.
Contrary to popular association, photography was not the primary work of the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was a New Deal agency designed to combat rural poverty during a period when the agricultural climate and national economy were causing great dislocations in rural life. The photographers who worked under the name of the FSA were hired on for public relations; they were supposed to provide visual evidence that there was need, and that the FSA programs were meeting that need. Beyond serving this institutional image, the photographers were to document aspects of "the American way of life" that caught their eye. This looser and farther-reaching mission ultimately accounted for the vast file of photographs (over 80,000 black and white images) that is now considered one of the most famous documentary photography projects ever.
In its various institutional incarnations from 1935 to 1944, the project employed itinerant photographers, ranging at times from only a few to the more generous figure of over twenty. Some of the more famous names, like Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans and Russell Lee, are recognizable to people who don't know the name of the FSA. I've chosen to work specifically with Marion Post Wolcott, a photographer whose work is definitely less well-known, but who took a series of images of jook joints in Florida that captured my fancy.
This material on the FSA photography is comprised of 4 sections, which can be read in a flexible order:
You can choose to start with a history of the Farm Security Administration and its photography division, if you feel really unfamiliar with this territory...
If you're feeling adventurous, or would like to start with a theoretical framework for thinking critically about documentary photography, you can begin thinking about documentary as a realist form, and why visual media was so important to the Thirties...
You should also familiarize yourself with Marion Post Wolcott's biography, so you can contextualize her work for the FSA...
When you're done working through all that, I have some reflections on narrative in the FSA photography that I hope you'll find intriguing.
Juliet Gorman, May 2001