The emphasis vacillated between conveying factual content and emotion, atmosphere, or aura. It was important to demonstrate the facts of the conditions, surely- this was a primary aim of 1930s documentary work. But, at times, what Stryker and the FSA photographers considered more effective and more vital was to convey what those conditions felt like. In this letter to Sheldon Dick, an FSA photographer, before his 1938 assignment to a Pennsylvania coal town, Stryker elaborated the emphasis on the feeling of a place:

The specific things I noted when I was there were that the town dropped down into a Pennsylvania mountain valley. Everywhere you look is man-made desolation, waste piles, bare hills, dirty streets. It is terribly important that you in some way try to show the town against this background of waste piles and coal tipples. In other words, it is a coal town and your pictures must tell it. It is a church dominated place...The place is not prosperous, people are loafing in saloons and around the streets. You must get this feeling of unemployment. There are many unpaved streets...The houses are old and rundown. The place is devoid of paint. I am sure lots of cheap liquor is consumed for no other reason than in an attempt to blot out the drabness of the place. When you are ready to shoot people try to pick up something of the feeling on the side of youth. Try to portray the hopelessness of their position...youth's confusions- liquor, swing, sex, and more liquor. The actual details will have to be worked out by yourself. (Trachtenberg 62, emphasis mine)

Here Stryker is staging a scene for Dick in words, and it becomes his job to work out how to translate this scene visually for his viewers. In order to demonstrate the feeling of the place that he is encouraging Dick to portray, Stryker narrates it. Youth's disaffection- the liquor, the swing, the sex, more liquor- a story so old it we recognize it before it is fully articulated, and yet so powerful for us that it carries an emotional currency.



Juliet Gorman, May 2001