By MEG SMITH
Roy Stryker brought America into focus.
As the head of the historical division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and in a similar post later at the Office of War Information (OWI), Stryker was the architect of a New Deal project that produced 164,000 photographs of American life taken between 1935 and 1942.
Though he seldom wielded a camera himself, he directed nearly two dozen photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans and Russell Lee, to create an internationally famous documentary of America.
Their memorable photographs measured America's social and economic conditions at a time when the country was foundering in the Depression and the looming shadows of World War II. Some of those images of suffering and endurance -- the glimpses America caught of itself -- have become familiar icons in the public's imagination.
Stryker was also the project's greatest defender, finding the funding to produce thousands of photographs a year for seven years. And when his own photographic unit faced extinction in 1943, he arranged to have all 164,000 prints and negatives archived in the Library of Congress.
"He wanted to keep it together as sort of a time capsule," said Beverly Brannan, a curator of photography in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division. The photographs were originally pegged to go to the National Archives, but its system would have broken the collection up and filed the pictures according to the myriad departments that had contributed funds to support the project.
"Roy Stryker was somebody who understood how bureaus work," Ms. Brannan said. "He switched the emphasis of his projects to whatever was required to keep them funded, but he always stayed true to his mission. The main mission was to document the deplorable conditions of farmers in the 1930s and early 1940s and what the government was doing to help them."
Now 45,000 black-and-white photographs from Roy Stryker's "time capsule" are available on the Library's American Memory Web site. The remaining 119,000 negatives will be added to the online collection during the next two years.
The Web site also features a separate collection of color photographs from the Office of War Information showing America's mobilization efforts during World War II.
"America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photos from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945," gives viewers unprecedented access to famous images such as Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" or some of Walker Evans's unprinted photographs from the series he did for James Agee's classic book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. They can also view never-before-published pictures from the rolls of Lange, Evans, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, John Collier and many others. The pictures are accompanied by text from the 1988 book Documenting America, 1935-1942, co-edited by Ms. Brannan and Carl Fleischhauer of the National Digital Library Program, which oversees the American Memory project.
Stryker's influence has endured since the photographs were published in magazines such as Life and Look 60 years ago. Using his training in economics under Rex Tugwell, a member of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's brain trust, Stryker was one of the first people to make the connection between the crippling Dust Bowl and the arrival of thousands of migrant farmers in California in the 1930s.
Stryker would give his photographers quizzes and summaries on the economic and social conditions of a region before he sent them on an assignment, "so that they would be both insiders and outsiders when they got there," Ms. Brannan said.
Dorothea Lange photographed the migrant workers' camps in California for the FSA, and also sent letters to Stryker describing what she saw. A description of her works on the American Memory Web site includes this Feb. 16, 1937, message to Stryker:
"I was forced to switch from Nipomo to the Imperial Valley because of the conditions there. They have always been notoriously bad as you know and what goes on in the Imperial is beyond belief. ... This year's freeze practically wiped out the crop and what it didn't kill is delayed -- in the meanwhile, because of the warm, no rain climate and [no] possibilities for work, the region is swamped with homeless moving families. The relief association offices are open day and night 24 hours. The people continue to pour in and there is no way to stop them and no work when they get there."
Stryker and Lange shared the common goal of telling the story of small-town America through more than just pictures. Before joining Stryker's staff in 1937, Lange prepared notebooks of her early photographs and excerpts from conversations with the migrant workers in California as part of a collaboration with her future husband, Paul Taylor, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Berkeley. When Stryker saw the notebooks, he used them as a model for his project. Those notebooks are featured in the "American Treasures" exhibition in the Library's Jefferson Building.
"By putting the text and the pictures together, they brought the conditions close to home," Ms. Brannan said.
For the first time, visitors to the Web site can see the breadth of the photographers' work, from joyous Easter celebrations and rodeos to cruel oppression and racism.
When searching by photographer, state or subject keyword, visitors to the Web site can visually browse each frame on an electronic "contact sheet" of related strips of film. Many of the unprinted images have captions describing the circumstances under which the photographs were taken, while another feature permits close study of individual frames. The photographs on the Web site were made using 35mm film. The rest of the images in the collection were created using other film sizes and will be added to the Web site quarterly until the collection is complete.
The online collection was created partly out of a need to preserve the fragile negatives, Ms. Brannan said. When the project began in 1992, the negatives were going to be stored on videodiscs. "But since then, the technology has changed and we realized the Internet would be the best way to represent the photos and make them accessible to the public," she said.
Many of the negatives and prints have physical flaws, but even the flaws have become part of the historical record, especially to other photographers, she said. Some images in the collection are from negatives that were poorly exposed, and in a handful of cases, frames were accidentally cut in half after development.
Others have holes neatly punched in the middle. Stryker and perhaps others in his office punched holes in what they felt were inferior or redundant negatives, a process they called "killing" the image. "So he sat down with his hole-puncher and made his choices. That did not sit well with the photographers," Ms. Brannan said.
Now the photographs from the collection that went unprinted for 50 years are becoming available to photographers, historians and genealogists who thought they would never have a chance to see them.
Carl Fleischhauer, co-editor of Documenting America, said releasing these pictures opens up new opportunities for research.
"The printed photographs of this collection have been gone over with a fine-tooth comb for 30 years, yet there is a huge number of pictures that have never been seen before in print.
"Seeing all of the photographs together will enable researchers to do a better job of reconstructing what the photographer was doing while on assignment," he said.
Not just how, but why. The thousands of contrasting images ranging from scenes of hardship to happiness raise questions about what Stryker and his photographers were looking for.
"All were very concerned with their fellow man," Ms. Brannan said. "I think all of them were worried about what they could do to help. They weren't really activists. ... They were more the kinds of people who stir others to activism."
In many cases, the photographers were as different from each other as the subjects they photographed.
Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania and made his career as a painter before joining Stryker's staff in 1935. He traveled through the South that year taking pictures with a right-angle viewfinder, so his subjects would think he was taking pictures in another direction when he was really photographing them.
"There was some concern he was stealing scenes from people's lives. ... I think he was seeing the landscape in a painterly way, but he had a photographic style that was pretty consistent," Ms. Brannan said. Shahn's journey through the South was his "first major trip outside New York City. Many of his photographs convey his sense of discovering America," she explained.
In one of Shahn's photographs (above), a man with a hardened face stands in front of his porch, looking away from the camera in a moment of quiet dignity. Shahn wrote under the picture that he was "one of the few remaining inhabitants of Zinc, Arkansas," the others probably driven out by the dust storms that wracked the Midwest in 1935, when the picture was taken.
Russell Lee's photographs were more muted, often capturing a mood rather than aiming for overt social commentary, Mr. Fleischhauer said. "His photographs portrayed life in a region under the spell of government intervention" without directly documenting its influence.
Ms. Brannan added, "Russell Lee never just snapped one photograph; he would take a series of images that developed a story or explored a mood that prevailed. There was always an opening and closing shot, giving his photographs a feeling of movement."
In one series, Lee follows a New Mexican named Eugene Davis through the steps of prospecting for gold from a stream (right). In the electronic contact strip that can be seen on the Web site, Lee paces around Davis to take each shot from a new angle and titles several photographs with a description of Davis's technique. There are nearly 30 images of Davis at work.
Lee's objective, natural approach differed greatly from that of Dorothea Lange, who used her camera to express her dissatisfaction with the conditions of the migrant workers in California, Mr. Fleischhauer said. "She was motivated to try to get changes to occur. She was an activist who was in sync with Roy Stryker's mission," he said.
Lange produced the best-known image of the FSA-OWI collection: "Migrant Mother" (right).
There are five versions in the Library's collection of the desperate woman shielding her children, because Lange shot several exposures from different distances and angles.
This was a characteristic way Lange earned the confidence of her subjects, Ms. Brannan said. "She was good at establishing a friendly atmosphere, and over time they would just forget she was there. Her style of portraiture was different from Parks'," who sometimes posed his subjects or arranged the scenery for a theatrical effect.
Parks was quoted in Documenting America explaining his artistic approach to photography as his best strategy for fighting racism. "Bigots have a way of looking just like everybody else. What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism ... by showing the people who suffered the most under it," he said.
His famous photograph, an ironic reflection of Grant Wood's American Gothic, was taken in the FSA's office. The woman in the photograph is Ella Watson, the building's charwoman. Posed stoically with a mop and a broom before the American flag, Watson represents the people who didn't achieve the American Dream.
The coming war shifted the agency's mission. Stryker began assigning defense-related stories to his photographers in 1940, and when the photographic unit was moved to the Office of War Information in 1942, this emphasis prevailed. But congressional dissatisfaction with the OWI and its focus on domestic issues led to cutbacks in the agency. Stryker, sensing that his picture collection was in jeopardy, sealed his time capsule in 1943 when he left government service.
"I think Roy Stryker used a public-relations opportunity to ... build a photographic encyclopedia of America." Mr. Fleischhauer said. "He could have told his photographers to save film and only take the pictures the government needed, but he said to use a lot of film so he could get the most comprehensive coverage possible."
But does that answer the question as to whether Stryker and his photographers were activists, documentarians, propagandists or government employees?
"All of the above," Mr. Fleischhauer said. "In a way, the whole project was all of the above."
Ms. Smith is an intern in the Public Affairs Office.