While Stryker's photographers generated many subject series, they also aimed to produce images that could stand on their own to evoke the desired effect in the viewer. In fact, the FSA banked on the power of documentary photography to create cultural archetypes that would be moving and meaningful to audiences. Portraits of a single person or a few individuals have come to symbolize the work of the FSA for many.

Critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau argues the shift towards the individual was somewhat a function of photography's method of signification: "to the extent that photography is less able to deal with collectivity than with individuality, work such as the FSA project demonstrates a probably inevitable slippage from the political to the anecdotal or the emblematic" (179).

This effect was only reinforced by the way FSA photography was promoted and received. Many of us, when asked what we know of the FSA, can conjure up out of the vague recesses of our memories an image of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother or Arthur Rothstein's Dust Storm. This association is due in part to a pattern in the market in which picture editors and curators who didn't have the patience to sort through thousands of prints asked for popular images, thus ensuring their further ubiquity.

In an article in The Complete Photographer, reflecting on the "documentary approach," Stryker provides a clear example of how the FSA could use a single image to fashion an archetype. "Individuals make up a people," he wrote; "their photographs are important in any documentary coverage." This provided the caption for eight classic FSA portraits of individuals: a Nevada gold dredger, a migrant worker in Visalia, California, a Louisiana muskrat trapper, the brakeman on the Challenger, the sheriff of Duncan, Arizona, a Salvation Army worker, a Mexican family in San Antonio, and Postmaster Brown of Old Rag, Virginia (1370-1).

The FSA's choice to use individual portraits to represent larger structural conditions not only reflects the documentary style; it is also based firmly in a political and ideological orientation. Simply stated, it was an article of their liberal faith that the individual was the primary unit of analysis. The individual, definitively more recuperable than the larger machine of "structures," provided proof that the social condition was not permanent, that human history was progressive. As Alan Trachtenberg argued, "to separate strands of social-science assumptions, political agenda, and moral attitude is impossible; all are fused indivisibly into a single vision" (62).




Juliet Gorman, May 2001









Links that take you outside this discussion:

If you are intrigued by this discussion of "liberal faith," you may, if you haven't already, want to check out the discussion of cultural nationalism and pluralism in the 1930s...