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Collection Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives

About this Collection

The photographs of the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection form an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944. This U.S. government photography project was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, formerly an economics instructor at Columbia University, and employed such photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, John Vachon, and Carl Mydans. The project initially documented cash loans made to individual farmers by the Resettlement Administration and the construction of planned suburban communities. The second stage focused on the lives of sharecroppers in the South and migratory agricultural workers in the midwestern and western states. As the scope of the project expanded, the photographers turned to recording both rural and urban conditions throughout the United States as well as mobilization efforts for World War II.

The collection encompasses the images made by photographers working in Stryker's unit as it existed in a succession of government agencies: the Resettlement Administration (1935-1937), the Farm Security Administration (1937-1942), and the Office of War Information (1942-1944). The collection also includes photographs acquired from other governmental and non-governmental sources, including the News Bureau at the Offices of Emergency Management (OEM), various branches of the military, and industrial corporations. In total, the collection consists of about 175,000 black-and-white film negatives and transparencies, 1,610 color transparencies, and around 107,000 black-and-white photographic prints, most of which were made from the negatives and transparencies. The collection was transferred to the Library of Congress in 1944.

How the Photographs Were Produced

Although photographers in Roy Stryker's unit were sent out on assignments throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, the unit's main office was in Washington, D.C. The office distributed photographic equipment and film, drew up budgets, allocated travel funds, hired staff, developed, printed, and numbered most negatives, reviewed developed film, edited photographers' captions written in the field, and maintained files of negatives, prints, and captions. The main office also distributed images to newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, and supplied photographs to exhibitions.

Staff photographers were given specific subjects and/or geographic areas to cover. These field assignments often lasted several months. Before beginning their assignments, photographers read relevant reports, local newspapers, and books in order to become familiar with their subject. A basic shooting script or outline was often prepared. Photographers were encouraged to record anything that might shed additional light on the topic that they were photographing, and they received training in making personal contacts and interviewing people.

Most of the time the photographers mailed their exposed negatives to the photographic unit's lab in Washington for developing, numbering and printing. [View images of the photo lab.] In the initial years of the project Stryker was almost exclusively responsible for reviewing contact prints made from the negatives and selecting images that he considered suitable for printing. Over time, however, photographers played a greater role in picture selection. Rejected images were classified as "killed." In earlier phases of the project a hole was sometimes punched through the "killed" negatives; later, this practice was abandoned. The rejected images are usually near duplicates and alternate views of a printed negative.

After Stryker reviewed and selected images, the negatives and contact prints (or "first prints") were returned to the photographers for captioning. The resulting captions were edited at the photographic unit's headquarters. The selected images were then printed and mounted, the captions were applied to the photo mounts, and the photographs were filed in the photographic unit's file.

Materials in the Collection and Access to Them

The FSA-OWI Collection consists of a variety of formats: negatives of various sizes and film types; photographic prints, most of which were made from those negatives; color transparencies; and some written records. Negatives and transparencies are accessed through this web site. The photographic prints have two principal forms of access: through a "vertical" file in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room and through microfilm.

Negatives

The core of the FSA-OWI Collection consists of approximately 175,000 black-and-white negatives. About half of these film negatives are on a safety film base called diacetate; about half are on a nitrate stock (see: What Do Nitrate Film Negatives Look Like in the FSA/OWI Collection).

The FSA-OWI negatives are arranged in series based on issuing agency, film type, and whether the negative is an original or a copy negative. The letters and numbers used in the prefix of the "call number" for each image encodes this information. For example, the prefix "LC-USF33" designates: Farm Security Administration 35 millimeter original film negative. The prefix "LC-USW3" designates: Office of War Information sheet film.

The negatives encompass both images that were printed for FSA-OWI use and those that were not printed at the time ("killed" negatives). These unprinted images were not made available during the years that the FSA-OWI photographic unit was in operation and are not represented by corresponding photographic prints (the portion of the collection that has been available to the public for several decades at the Library of Congress).

To view the unprinted negatives, go to a description for any FSA/OWI image and select the "Browse neighboring items by call number" link. The resulting display mimics a printed "contact sheet," often used by photographers to make an initial examination of exposed negatives. Viewing the images in this way enables users to see related printed and unprinted negatives. It may also offer insight on photographers' working methods and on the operating procedures of the FSA-OWI photographic unit, although the unprinted negatives are often simply alternate views of printed images.

Since caption information was lacking for many of the images that were not selected for printing, only a very limited number of the "killed" negatives are identified with a title in their accompanying catalog records. Most simply have "Untitled" as a title. It may be possible to identify these untitled images by searching for images that have neighboring call numbers, are similar in appearance, and have titles.

Photographic Prints

There are more than 107,000 photographic prints in the collection, consisting of about 77,000 images produced by photographers under Roy Stryker's direction and about 30,000 photographs (many without corresponding negatives) acquired from other sources. See FSA-OWI Photographic Prints for more about the photographic prints.

The photographic prints may be viewed in two arrangements:

  • LOTs - Many of the prints were sorted into "LOTs" -- groups of images that were usually organized by photographic assignment or specific geographic location. Most of the LOTs were microfilmed. After microfilming, the LOTs were disassembled and used to form the FSA-OWI Reading Room File. Therefore, most LOTs no longer exist in any form but microfilm. Copies of the microfilmed LOTs can be viewed in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room or can be purchased from the Library's Duplication Service. See FSA-OWI Photographic Prints: LOTs for more about the LOTs.
  • FSA-OWI Reading Room File - After the photographic prints were microfilmed as "LOTs," they were reorganized by geographic region and subject and put into file cabinets according to a classification scheme devised by Paul Vanderbilt. The Reading Room File is available to researchers who come to the Prints and Photographs Division Reading Room. See FSA-OWI Photographic Prints: Reading Room File for more about the Reading Room file.

Color Transparencies

There are 1,610 color images in the collection which date from between 1939 and 1945. They were produced under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Office of War Information (OWI). Most of the 644 images produced by the FSA are 35 mm Kodachrome slides; a few are color transparencies in sizes up to 4x5 inches. These photographs depict life in the United States, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with an emphasis on rural areas and farm labor. The 965 images from the OWI are color transparencies in sizes up to 4x5 inches. These photographs focus on industrial facilities and women employees, railroads, aviation training, and other aspects of the mobilization effort for World War II. See the collection home page for the FSA-OWI Color Photographs for more about these color images.

Written Records

The collection came with some associated written records that provide insight into the operations of the FSA-OWI photographic unit and the development of certain photographic assignments. The records have been copied onto 23 reels of microfilm, which can be viewed in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room (LOT 12024) or can be purchased from the Library's Duplication Services (order number P&P 12024). A pamphlet, Farm Security Administration, Historical Section: a Guide to Textual Records in the Library of Congress (a PDF version of the guide is available online), provides information about the organization of the records. Purchasers of the microfilm will receive this guide at no extra charge. A sample of the records have been digitized. See FSA-OWI Written Records for more about the written records.

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