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Transcript of "About the FSA Collection" (Carl Fleischhauer)

Documenting America, 1935-1943: The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photo Collection

Photographs like these are familiar to most Americans. They are icons of the nation's Great Depression, reproduced so often in books and magazines that they have become symbols of the period, as well as serving as documents from the time.

Many who see these photographs are aware that the originals are held by the Library of Congress. And many know they are part of a big collection nicknamed FSA, short for the Farm Security Administration, a government agency that was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The FSA included a photography unit, several of whose members became famous in later years: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott. All of this is true but there is more to be told.

The full name for the collection is Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection. The photography unit was active from 1935 to 1943. Then, a few years later, after World War II, the collection came to the Library of Congress. The biggest part of the collection consists of one hundred and seventy thousand photo negatives. The negatives are in different sizes - ranging from 35mm to 8x10 inches.

In the 1900s and 2000s, the Library carefully re-housed these negatives in special preservation sleeves and boxes for storage in new vaults at the Library's Packard Campus audio-visual facility in Virginia, at 39 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent relative humidity.

How were these negatives used, back in the day, when the photo unit was active? Some were selected for printing and 8x10s - positive prints - were produced. The photographers and the headquarters unit generally selected images that might be useful in publications and other forms of communication.

The selected 8x10 photographic prints were mounted on cardboard. Each received a typed caption. Along with the negatives, these mounted 8x10 prints were also brought to the Library during the 1940s.

At the end of the photo unit's nine-year life in 1943, it had amassed seventy-five thousand prints. Do the math - fewer than half of the negatives were printed. Ninety thousand images exist only as negatives, not available for public viewing at the Library. There were microfilms and a microfiche set that showed the prints - available in some research libraries - but for fifty years, the way most researchers saw the pictures was to come to Washington to look through the file drawers.

Then, during the 1990s, all one hundred and seventy thousand negatives were digitized and placed online. This meant that, for the first time, people could see all of the pictures. And they could be accessed everywhere in the world. Since the photographs are the work of federal government employees, they fall into the public domain - no copyright. The appeal of the photographs is the way, taken together, they offer a rich and varied look at American people and places - farmers working in their fields, family members in their homes, and folks shopping at the A&P, like this one in Ohio. Many pictures do document hard times - in this case people lined up for food relief after a major flood. Meanwhile, others convey an upbeat image of grass roots self-expression. And some are pure poetry, evoking another time and place.

The great and enduring success of this collection is a tribute not only to the photographers but also to Roy Stryker, the man who led the unit through its eight-year existence. The photo unit was part of the Farm Security Administration in the Department of Agriculture from 1937 to 1942.

But it started life in 1935 in an independent government agency called the Resettlement Administration. And at the end of its life, in 1941 and 1942, it was part of the Office of War Information, a wartime agency for the dissemination of information to the American public and overseas.

In fact, the period covered by the photographs does not coincide in a neat way with the Great Depression, which began after the 1929 crash of the stock market. The national economic collapse that followed began during Herbert Hoover's presidency and continued after Roosevelt took office in 1933. Some of the Depression's bleakest days spanned the two administrations, from about 1930 to 1934, and hard times continued until America began the manufacturing buildup for World War II, in about 1938.

The photographic unit was founded in 1935, four or five years after the Depression began, and continued its work into the first year of American participation in the war, closing down in 1943. The photographs document American life from the middle of the Depression to the early years of the War. And they tell us about some of the concerns of the Roosevelt administration and about the roles of the three sponsoring agencies.

At the Resettlement Administration, for example, one concern was to improve housing. There are photographs that give us the before - and the after - scenes of new homes in new towns like Greendale, Wisconsin.

At the next agency - Farm Security Administration - the overall mission concerned the plight of small farmers, some of whom rented land or sharecropped - that's a term for farmers who had to give a big share of what they earned to the owners of the land they worked. In the 1930s, these tenant farmers were being displaced by mechanization as tractors, big plows, and harvesting equipment replaced animal power and small-scale implements. The FSA provided assistance programs that improved the farmers' business skills and provided other forms of support to tenants and small farm operations.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and other Midwestern states, farmers were forced to abandon their land in the wake of dust storms and drought conditions. These Dust Bowl migrants trekked to California in overloaded cars and pickup trucks.

FSA photographs - like these by Dorothea Lange - offer a very sympathetic portrait of the migrants from the Midwest. The impact of these "problem" photographs is far greater than the visual impact of the "solution statement" photographs like this - showing one of the spic and span labor camps that the FSA set up to accommodate the Okies and Arkies who found their way to California. Meanwhile, in the East, the photographers documented the residents of Appalachia, including those in the coal fields, as well as portraying new communities built on their behalf, like this one in West Virginia.

As the 1930s came to an end, Hitler's aggressive moves in Europe - and the plight of beleaguered Great Britain - made it clear to the Roosevelt Administration that the U.S. must prepare for war and support our allies. The photographers had new subject matter added to their assignment lists: the manufacturing buildup to ready the nation for war... for example, the effort to build the famous Liberty ships that carried supplies to Europe, and later, to the Pacific...as well as the wartime contribution of the nation's railroads.

Even in this period, however, the photographers' coverage was broad. In Lititz, Pennsylvania, for example, where a factory had been converted to the manufacture of munitions, photographer Marjory Collins not only documents the factory but also treats us to many scenes of small town life - for example, a barber, and an apple-seller at an Amish market.

Meanwhile, during the unit's latter years, the photographers experimented with then-new types of color film. The color images portray rural life - like this quilt maker in New Mexico. And urban scenes - like this house in Massachusetts that had been converted into a shop for plumbing supplies.

So, how did it all come to an end? There were intermittent controversies throughout the photographic unit's existence. Some in the congress complained that the Roosevelt administration used the pictures in news releases and other publications to build political support, in effect, domestic propaganda. A little more than a year after America entered World War II - for the 1943 fiscal year - congress cut the unit's funding and it was disbanded. A few years later, the photo collection found its way to the Library of Congress.

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  June 4, 2013
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