“It was more education than anything else…. We introduced Americans to America.” -Roy Stryker
During the Great Depression
While the photographers were traversing fields and cities across the United States, Roy Stryker and the Washington based team focused on “introducing Americans to America” by presenting the pictures to the public. The photographs were promulgated by a variety of means, providing a visual education to the American public. Newspapers and magazines across the nation printed the photographs (McDanell, 9). In addition, the pictures were used in government publications and pamphlets and by congressional committees and investigative agencies.
Furthermore, there were no copyright costs to reproduce the government owned images, so they were frequently published in commercial books. Archibald MacLeish’s used them to illustrate his epic poem, Land of the Free (1938), and considered the images crucial to convey the poetry. He wrote that his work was “not a book of poems illustrated by photographs,” but “a book of photographs illustrated by a poem” (Curtis, vii).
Exhibitions were another method of providing exposure to the public. Traveling exhibits targeted a wide range of audiences such as camera clubs, universities, church groups, conventions, and state fairs (McDanell, 9). Exposing city dwellers to the plight of rural America became the subject of several major exhibits in New York City and a selection of FSA photographs was submitted to the 1938 First International Photographic Exposition.
The exhibit elicited 540 responses collected from a comment box, which provide valuable insight into the reaction of the public to the photographs of the FSA during the Great Depression. The reactions ranged from “Moving and dramatic” to “Subversive propaganda.”
Other examples include, “Wake up Smug America” and “A hell of a subject for a salon.” One commenter wrote, “These pictures impress one as real life of a vast section of the American people,” while another viewer reflected, “It makes you think of tomorrow and what it will bring” (Curtis, 5).
Although sponsored by the Federal Government, the FSA photographic program was controversial. Stryker was often on the defensive and budgetary limitations made equipping photographers difficult. “Unsympathetic government accountants questioned the cost of film and camera equipment, per diem expenses, and the subsidy of automobile travel…. Hostile congressional critics resisted photographic forays into their districts and demanded explanation of the entire concept of visual information” (Curtis, 9).
In 1943, the pressures and rationing leading up to WWII brought the project to an end, and the collection of approximately 250,000 images was deposited in the Library of Congress in 1944 (McDanell, 271). Even as late as 1948, five years after the program ended, congressmen again questioned “the merit of the ‘silly photos’ that ‘clutter’ the Library of Congress” (272), but the pictures were preserved.
For many years, the size of the file and the careful storage of the negatives needed for preservation precluded its access by the general public; however, in 1995, the Library of Congress digitized the entire collection, which can now be easily accessed and searched online.
The collection of FSA Photographs is now hailed as the definitive portrayal of an entire era– the Great Depression. Some of the pictures are installed in fine art galleries as part of permanent museum exhibits and have been credited with helping to define the genre of documentary photography. In his article, “The FSA Collection of Photographs,” written 30 years after the program ended, Stryker maintains that the project cannot be so narrowly defined as art, journalism, or historical documentary. He says it was an education (Stryker, 8), for the American people living in the Great Depression, for himself, the FSA photographers, as well as for us today and future generations.