The Farm Security Administration
The Farm Security Administration was a United States government photography project initially created to document what was done with loan money given to Americans for resettlement. The FSA photographers traveled across the country to take photos of how the money was being used, and eventually this led to the documentation of migrant workers during the Great Depression and the American landscape during World War II. The FSA photographs were extremely significant because it truly showed America – particularly the poor, in a very exposed and real way. The FSA photographs paved the way for documentary photography.
To learn more about the impact and legacy of the photographs commissioned by the FSA, visit the Impact page.
The government photography project went through three different names and phases, although it was headed by the same man for most of its existence: Roy Stryker.
Resettlement Administration: 1935-1937
The Resettlement Administration was the first agency that photographs were incorporated in, documenting cash loans given to settle the Western parts of the United States. The photography project was part of the Historical Section.
Farm Security Administration: 1937-1942
The FSA photographs make up the majority of the collection, taken during the Great Depression and the early part of World War II. It is the FSA that the most iconic photographs from the Great Depression come from, and include the photographs of notable photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein.
Office of War Information: 1942-1944
The OWI was created to document the American front during World War II and served as an important source of propaganda. The unit focused on topical photography such as women in the workforce.
Photographers of the FSA were sent out on assignment throughout the United States and Puerto Rico to capture photographs of real Americans. Twelve photographers were employed by the FSA, provided equipment and film, and given a particular assignment or topic to cover. The FSA headquarters in Washington D.C. maintained budgets and hired staff, but most importantly, headed by Roy Stryker, developed, numbered and printed most of the film that was sent back by the photographers.
Photographers would send back their undeveloped negatives, and Stryker and staff at the FSA would develop, edit or create captions for the photos, and maintain the files of all the prints. The FSA also distributed the photographs to newspapers and periodicals, and supplied prints to exhibitions. Early on, the photographers only played a minor role in the captioning and distribution of their photographs, but as the project became higher profile, their opinion was taken into consideration. Eventually, contact sheets for the developed negatives were sent back to the photographer for captioning and editing.
About the Collection
The core of the FSA-OWI collection contains 178,000 black and white negatives, 107,000 photographic prints, and 1,610 color transparencies. Half of the negatives are diacetate, and half are nitrate, but the collection contains all negatives developed for the FSA-OWI project, including those that were “killed” – or deemed unusable by Stryker or the photographer. These photographs were never printed, but are available online at the Library of Congress.
The color transparencies are a special part of the collection, documenting mainly rural life in the United States, with notable sections on both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. About 650 of the color images were produced for the FSA, and the rest for the OWI.
The entire FSA-OWI photograph collection can be accessed at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division