Portrait of a Decade

Gordon Parks, Washington DC 1942

Portrait of a Decade

I don’t think anyone has done a really good “portrait” of the FSA decade (1932-42). But since I will be writing about it, I figured it would be a good idea to review some of the available books, both for their content and the mistakes I’d like to avoid.

Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties (1972) is an excellent book in many respects. It has fresh, original research including first-person interviews with many of the people involved.

However, some of the basic concepts which it uses as a point of departure seem deeply flawed to me. Hurley ignores a lot of pioneering work through careful definitional exclusion. He feels that the Stryker was instrumental in enabling documentary work, work that would not have existed otherwise.

Edwin Rosskam gets a total of one paragraph. [I must amend— there are a couple more in chapter 6] Bourke-White and Caldwell are deprecated. The book follows a rather liberal party-line, where commercial=bad and all of the New Deal cheerleaders were the heroes. Evans is subsumed into this crowd, even though Hurley admits that it is an insult to him.

Intro. & Chap. 1
Chap. 2 — 9/1
Chap. 3 & 4 — 9/2
Chap. 5 — 9/8
Chap. 6 — 9/15

more to come later

Deep background in the “conventional” story sets this book apart. I like the book, but it is fairly shoddy scholarship. There are many errors, omissions, and travesties in the organizational structure. But it also has several leads I need to track down. The biggest problem is stripping away the obvious cheerleading to get to the meat.


The success of the unifying strategies of the rhetoric of the 30s is clearly evidenced by the introduction. In Hurley’s perspective, the first opposition enumerated is the debate over the role of photography. One faction argues that the proper use of the camera is to “explore the inner reaches of man’s mind,” while the other faction argues that the camera should be turned outward to explore man in his environment. Hurley however concedes that “a good documentary photograph is never neutral. It has a point of view” (vii).

Next, Hurley concedes that “no one person or group of persons invented documentary photography” (vii). He mentions Brady, Riis, Hine, and Paul Strand. But (the omnipresent but), there was a “turning point” in the history of this aesthetic style, during “the nation’s ultimate test,” the Great Depression. Then, and only then (from Hurley’s perspective) did the camera enter “the reality of the streets” (vii). Hurley again concedes that 70% of all government agencies in the 30s used photography in one form or another, but the FSA’s staff was “intensely professional,” and their pictures were not “routine” (ix)

The declared intent of this book is to “shed light on some aspects of the creative process” developed within the context of the FSA. Hurley promises that politics will not be a major part of the discussion. The primary assumptions at work here are clear— photography is not as significant if not “creative” and “realism” in photography was born in the thirties. There are secondary assumptions as well, for example that the Great Depression was unlike any other, and that the experience of the depression was relatively uniform across the population of the US [reflecting further, the division of experiences of the depression is split— into urban vs. rural— my initial comment is inaccurate].

Ultimately, I just cannot agree. The impulse for reform existed outside government agencies, and for certain populations the Great Depression was just more of the same, rather than a cataclysmic outbreak. The effectiveness of a photograph is not necessarily related to its creativity. Realism was in flux before, during, and after the 1930s. But the period does present an excellent point of departure for a study of the documentary impulse.

The rhetoric involved in this book is like most historical studies, in that its primary focus is on delineating heroes and villains in the all too human struggle to construct society.

Chapter 1: A New Force in Education and Photography: Roy Emerson Stryker

The narrative intro is straight out of Horatio Alger— Stryker on a donkey, west of Montrose Colorado. Stryker’s father dabbled in politics and small business, he made enough money to educate his children. Stryker’s older brother was a public school administrator in Kansas, and sent the kids books. Roy Stryker attempted college, but due to a lack of funds withdrew in 1913. He worked on a ranch until WW I, when he enlisted in the Army. After he exited in 1919, farm prices had dropped so he reentered college in 1920. Worsening farm economic conditions made him interested in social work and economics. He married, and moved to New York to study at Columbia University. One of his teachers was Rexford Tugwell.

Tugwell was teaching classes in utopian socialism. Tugwell’s accent was on the visual aspects of learning, and pushed Stryker to examine projects like the Pageant of America visual encyclopedia (1921-25). Stryker received a bachelor’s degree in economics, and became a graduate assistant while completing his masters. Tugwell enlisted his help in putting together a visually oriented textbook, American Economic Life (1924-30).

Hurley notes the escapist quality of the pictorial magazines of this era, such as Vogue (1892—) and Vanity Fair (1914—), particularly Steichen’s photos in Vanity Fair. He gives a brief nod to Charities and Commons and Survey, and Hine and Riis. He notes that most photographers of the Progressive era were detached and aesthetic. In putting together subsequent editions of the textbook, the photographers used included Hine and Margaret Bourke-White. Stryker was employed by Columbia until 1935. He never completed his doctorate, and most of his work was concentrated on classes on American economic life. There was a confrontation between Tugwell and Stryker regarding his failure to complete his degree. Stryker decided that he just wasn’t an academic person.

*Note— I woke up this morning with a flash about Condé Nast publications— I’m not sure if they were from the start, but Vogue and Vanity Fair are currently part of that publishing empire. Condé Nast early on employed European photojournalists like Andre Kertéz, and certainly must have played a larger role in emergent documentary styles than Hurley implies.

Chapter 2: Changing Political Winds

This chapter is of course, almost totally political. Hurley notes that the stock market crash of 1929 went largely unnoticed on farms, because they had been in crisis since World War I. In effect, the depression began on the farms in 1920. There was a wide gulf between the urban prosperity of the 20s and the rural crisis. The rise of the tenant farming system began, and government price supports caused the owners to prosper and the tenants to fail, turning into a vagabond population which moved around as the soil failed. Economist Rexford Tugwell was deeply concerned with the rural problem.

Tugwell became part of New York governor Franklin Roosevelt’s “brain trust” in 1932, invited in by one of Roosevelt’s speech writers, Raymond Moley— Tugwell’s next door neighbor and colleague at Columbia University. After Roosevelt was elected president, Tugwell became assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. A number of new programs were instituted, and Tugwell brought Stryker in as a specialist in illustrations for the Information Division of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration.

Stryker proposed a picture book on agriculture in 1933, and worked on the project through 1935. Another Columbia student, Arthur Rothstein was brought in to work copying and reproducing the photographs for the project. Rothstein was a chemistry major, with an interest in photography. The project collapsed, and no book was published.

On April 30, 1935, Executive Order 7027 was signed, consolidating the government agricultural programs into a new Resettlement Administration, outside the Department of Agriculture, to assist with the rising problems of tenant farmers. It was in a “bureaucratic twilight zone, without legal sanction or civil service status” (30). Tugwell became chief of the organization, while retaining his status as assistant secretary of agriculture.

The Resettlement Administration had three major areas of concern. A program of low interest loans to farmers, a purchase program to buy ruined land, and a vague edict to assist in the resettlement of displaced farmers. There were numerous experiments, including communal farms and sponsored rural communities. The job of the information division was to promote and present these positive programs to the country.

Chapter 3: Groping for Directions

Roy Stryker officially joined the staff of the Resettlement Administration on July 10, 1935. His title was “Chief of the Historical Section.” The written directions for his position was to:

Direct the activities of investigators, photographers, economists, sociologists, and statisticians engaged in the accumulation and compilation of reports . . . . statistics, photographic material, vital statistics, agricultural surveys, maps and sketches necessary to make accurate description of the various . . . phases of the Resettlement Administration. (36)

The job began with an emphasis of the “historical” aspect. Arthur Rothstein was brought down from Columbia as the first photographer. He spent most of his time photographing every scrap of paper that crossed Stryker’s desk. He also documented new building construction, and virtually anything thought to have future historical significance.

Another government agency (formerly under the Department of the Interior), Suburban Resettlement, was transferred to the control of the Resettlement Administration. They had been requesting expensive cameras so that they could also document their work, and employed photographers and experienced layout men “whose work was quite sophisticated and expensive” (38). [Another thing to chase down!] Stryker decided that too many competing people and agencies were using cameras and talking about hiring photographers, and there was a lot of wasteful overlap to what was going on— there needed to be a centralized authority.

Stryker’s freindship with Tugwell came in handy. Soon, all authority over photographic projects was transferred to Stryker’s department, the Information Division. According to Hurley, the consolidation brought Carl Mydans and Walker Evans into the historical section. [Hurley’s right about Mydans— but the consolidation had nothing to do with Evans coming into the picture.]

The staff at this time had distinctly different backgrounds. Stryker was of course an Economics teacher. Rothstein was passionate about the technical aspects of photography. Mydans came over from Suburban Resettlement, and prior to that was a journalist for the Boston Globe and Boston Herald— a financial reporter who picked up photography on the side. His passion was for 35mm cameras, so none of the editors he worked for took his work seriously. A friend at Time told him about the opening at Suburban Resettlement, and while Mydans was there he worked on a book which “turned out to be too expensive to print” (42). Evans, of course, was from a fine art and literary background. Hurley’s snapshot biography of Evans is horrible: “he was the product of a puritanical home in the middle west” (44). Hurley wants to connect Evans’s aesthetic with austere Puritanism, rather than the modernist milieu he actually came from— and connects him with Steiglitz, which is a gross error.

Though not formally employed by the Information Division, Ben Shahn’s influence comes in at this point— Hurley had noted that Mydans was the reason why Stryker took 35mm seriously, but Shahn’s visual sense was in direct counterpoint to his friend Walker Evans’s aesthetic. Shahn was hired by the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration as a painter and designer in fall of 1935. Shortly after joining, Shahn went on a tour of the South and Southwest, and Stryker asked if the final prints could be placed in the Historical Section’s archive. Stryker and Shahn had many conversations regarding the possibilities for photography.

In the fall of 1935, Stryker also first saw the photographs of Dorothea Lange. She had already been documenting the problem for a few years. Hurley offers a capsule profile of Lange which is as oversimplified as his portrayal of Evans, and notes that she was quickly added to the payroll. The staff was now set, and the direction was found. There would be no more photocopying of office memos. Hurley offers a 1939 government publicity expert’s summation of the direction of the Historical division:

The basic assumptions shared by the Administration and the Section Chief, was that a government agency should consider the function to be much broader than the mere performance of the job assigned. It should, in fact, consider its role against the background of American life as a whole and should recognize its role in the total scheme of social processes. In picture taking, this meant that the Resettlement Agency’s photographers should first record . . . the performance of the agency’s primary job, which was to administer relief . . . The second part of the photographer’s job would be to record and report the milieu in which the agency performed its primary function. As a result, the photographers took pictures of nearly any subject that was significant as a document of American Culture. (54)

Chapter 4: Stryker and the Photographers: The Early Years

From 1935-37, the Resettlement Administration was an autonomous agency, but in 1937 it went through a major reorganization as it was subsumed into the Department of Agriculture . Hurley points out that Stryker decided not to take any photographs himself, so that “he would be free to guide and motivate without being caught up in either the mechanics of photography or any specific stylistic approach” (55). Of course, this is contradicted almost immediately, on the following page as he writes of Stryker’s notes of “specific pictures to look for” which later evolved into “shooting scripts” (56). Hurley celebrates however, Stryker’s gift for dealing with the photographers as individuals, giving different directions to each photographer involved. “Stryker seemed to know intuitively how to draw the maximum effort from each person” (56).

The first example of this is his dealings with Carl Mydans, who was assigned to travel south and “do cotton.” Finding out that Mydans knew absolutely nothing about cotton or its economic importance, Stryker literally gave him a day-long lecture on cotton. Each historical section photographer was told to buy a copy of J. Russell Smith’s socioeconomic geography book, North America. Smith was a geographer who taught at Columbia (58).

Hurley points out that Evans required “special handling.” Evans really never saw much use for Stryker. He was lax about turning in his paperwork, and worked too slow by government standards. In 1936, Evans took a leave of absence to do a job for Fortune, the job which later became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He left the Resettlement Administration completely in the summer of 1937. Hurley notes that the Stryker-Evans relationship was the most unsatisfactory of all.

Unlike Evans, Lange required a lot of affirmation for her work. Stryker gave her far more specific directions for her work, but they were usually conversational in tone. Her separation from Washington DC, geographically, made it hard to have any sense of community with the other photographers. Stryker was quick to dangle carrots, like the prospect of working on a book with Charles Wilson tentatively titled Roots of America. I love this excerpt from a letter Hurley uses:

Would you, in the next few days, take for us some good slum pictures in the San Francisco area. (Of course, no California city has slums, but I’ll bet you can find them.) We need to vary the diet in some of our exhibits here by showing some western poverty instead of all south and east. (70)

When Lange finally visited the office, she was struck by the atmosphere of freedom there. She was also relieved to find that they would release pictures for almost any legitimate outside use, so she could continue to submit her photos to the progressive magazine Survey Graphic.

Two photographers came and went in 1935-36, Paul Carter and Theodor Jung. Carter had great technical aptitude, but no “eye” and Jung had an eye, but no aptitude. In 1936, Mydans also decided to leave for a staff position on Life magazine. This caused a geographical crisis, with no one available to cover the Midwest. Russell Lee was brought in as his replacement. Lee’s training was in chemical engineering, and he had also attempted painting, spending two years at the California School of Fine Arts and a few years in New York.

Lee and Rothstein quickly became friends. In late 1936, Rothstein was sent to North Dakota for pictures. After working fulfilling his assignment, he began working with a cow skull in different arrangements. The resulting picture became a huge controversy. When Roosevelt sent a delegation of farm experts into the area (during an election year), Rothstein’s photo of the cow skull on parched ground was already famous. To discredit Roosevelt, it was revealed that Rothstein had moved the skull around, and it was published under the headline “It’s A Fake.” The story was picked up by many newspapers, the most scathing being the Erie, Pennsylvania Dispatch Herald:

The whole resettlement program is a ghastly fake, based on fake ideas, and what is more natural that it be promoted through fake methods similar to those used by ordinary confidence men. (90)

Edwin Locke, a young man who had joined as Stryker’s assistant, quickly issued a press release regarding “alternate views” as a common practice in journalism. I love the note that he sent Rothstein:

Look at the clipping and look at the rebuttal, and also look in your current newspapers for an AP story in which I deny the spuriousness of your photography. They will probably try to get in touch with you if this matter goes any further, so if you still have that goddam skull, hide it for Christ’s sake. Stick close to my story. (90)

In late 1936, there were budget cuts. Evans was still on leave, but Stryker had to cut Dorothea Lange from the payroll. This left him with only Rothstein and Lee. When the transfer to the Department of Agriculture occurred in spring of 1937, the budget crisis was averted. Lange was placed back on the payroll.

Chapter 5: A Time of Broadening

This is truly the weakest, and narrowest chapter in the book. Hurley begins with the assumption that the emphasis of “Stryker and his staff” was purely rural. That may have been true of Lee and Rothstein, but it was not true of Evans or Lange. Lange began, long before the FSA to document urban poverty. Evans began with the dynamism of the modern city. And the addition of Edwin Rosskam in 1939 brought yet another photographer with a distinctly urban emphasis. According to Hurley, “they recognized that rural people were moving to urban centers, bringing rural problems and attitudes with them” (95). Clearly, the problems of urbanization existed long before the 1930s.

Hurley remarks that the reorganization of the Resettlement Administration into the Department of Agriculture brought with it a new sort of respect and prestige. Tugwell stepped down as head of the department, and Hurley suggests that he might have been “a lightning rod for controversy” (96). His replacement Dr. Will Alexander wanted to make the project “more palatable for those who saw it as a socialistic plot to communize the American farmer” (96). The focus of the historical section was thus shifted into presenting a fuller picture of American life.

Hurley suggests that Stryker employed an “almost Socratic method,” by phrasing his shooting scripts in the form of questions (98). Assignments were briefed both by a shooting script consisting of questions like “Do beer halls and pool halls take the place of country clubs for the poor?” and suggested source books for research. The shift into portraying small town life was already in place when Sherwood Anderson approached by the FSA with the idea of using some of its small town pictures. Hurley states that the manuscript was 70,000 words— conflicting with Gary Saretzky’s figure of 60,000. The details around this book are confusing. Saretzky claims that the book was in process before Rosskam joined the FSA; Hurley claims that Rosskam worked on the book as an employee of the FSA. I suspect Saretzky is right.

Hurley claims that “in terms of official credit, the book remained Anderson’s although Rosskam had certainly played a key editorial role” (102). In the first edition I have, Rosskam is clearly credited as editor; his name is first on the title page under series editor. Hurley further asserts that Rosskam “would be able to claim some credits of his own when he teamed up with Negro writer Richard Wright” (102). In Wrights book, Rosskam is listed only under “photo-direction,” leaving his active participation in the editing process rather vague. There is no other mention of the books Rosskam created outside the FSA, which is understandable. But the books mentioned here merely employed FSA photographs, they did not in any way connect themselves with the political intentions of the FSA.

Hurley expends copious space on Russell Lee, compared with Rosskam. The road trips of Lange and Lee are recounted with no mention of Lee’s penchant for disappearing on the road, like Walker Evans, chafing against the authority of Stryker. In late 1937, “the Roosevelt recession” prompted budget cutbacks, and Evans and Lange were taken off the payroll in late 1937 or early 1938. This clashes deeply with the timeline Hurley has sketched; the Rosskam projects were in 1940 and 41. The early travels were cut back, and in 1938 the photographers did mostly mundane illustrative pictures (106). In the summer of 1938, Rothstein and Lee did extensive projects for Public Health.

These trips were used to pay for a project closer to the FSA agenda. For example, after a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in September 1938, on his way to New Orleans Lee did some his best work for the FSA. Things returned to normal in late 1938, with Dorothea Lange back on the payroll and a new photographer, Marion Post, added to the roster. Conflicting again with his initial statements regarding the rural interests of the FSA workers, he calls Post “an attractive and determined young woman” who was a city girl from a “fashionable home” (108-110). Hurley notes that Post reacted to the countryside in a “romantic” fashion, and dovetails this with another shift in Stryker’s perception.

Stryker stopped by the offices of Survey Graphic (a progressive reform magazine with a deep history) and spoke with the editor’s wife Mrs. Paul Kellogg. She had just received a letter from a farmer who complained that the concentration on the “lower third” of the farm population created problems in the public’s perception (112). After 1938, according to Hurley “emphasis shifted to include a more balanced view of rural life” (112). The remainder of the chapter sketches some chaotic anecdotes regarding difficulties encountered by the photographers which follows no real pattern (other than a fascination with Post and Lee), and closes with the optimistic pronouncement, “sociologists and anthropologists are beginning to see real possibilities for the scientific use of cameras,” completely ignoring the fact that they had already been using them for at least forty years prior to the FSA (120).

Chapter 6: Putting the Pictures to Work

One of the primary purposes of the FSA Historical section was getting maximum use from the photographs they collected. It began to function in 1935, and by 1936 the photographs were starting to appear in magazines that were “sympathetic” (122). In January 1936, Survey Graphic ran a feature by Lillian Davis called “Relief and the Sharecropper” illustrated by two FSA photographs by Arthur Rothstein. According to Hurley, “both pictures were strong visual statements of rural hopelessness and inertia” (123). Survey Graphic had long been an outlet for reform oriented photographs— including “Against the Covered Wagon” written by Paul Taylor with six photographs by Dorothea Lange in July 1935, “Pea Picker’s Child” in the same issue with two illustrations by Lange, as well as some of Lewis Hine’s TVA photographs in January 1934 (frontispiece) and “Benchmarks in the Tennessee Valley” (same issue).

Hurley notes that this was the exception, and not the rule. Most newspapers and magazines balked at using “government-financed” photographs. Hurley attributes this to jealousy, and “feelings of inadequacy” that “were sometimes translated into antipathy” (123). When photographs were used, they were seldom credited. [note to self- try to figure out how prevalent uncredited photos were in early magazines— it may have been commonplace]. Hurley also notes that “camera-friendly” magazines like US Camera could always be counted on. These were the primary outlets in 1936-7, and of course internal agency pamphlets and special reports.

In March 1936 the first major article on the RA appeared in Survey Graphic. “Southern Farm Tenancy: The Way Out of Its Evils” was illustrated by three RA photographs, two by Rothstein and one by Ben Shahn. In June 1936, the cover photograph of Survey Graphic was by Rothstein, and in September it featured a two-page layout of Lange’s pictures of sharecroppers called “Draggin’-Around People.” “Migrant Mother” was one of those photographs, and they prefaced an article by Paul Taylor. Two early agency pamphlets, “Resettlement Administration” and “America’s Land” also appeared in 1936. The first annual report appeared in November 1936. Individual photographers were not identified in the captions.

In late summer 1936, US Camera’s salon of photographs featured the work of Rothstein and Lange. This set a tone for preparing traveling exhibitions, the first one was prepared in October 1936 with 110 mounted prints. Participation in exhibitions brought rising tensions from the photographers who wanted to print their own work, including Lange (130). However, Hurley notes that she was the exception and not the rule (how quickly he forgets Evans!). Rothstein and Lee never protested, and Hurley conjectures that this might be the reason why they remained constantly on the payroll. The most impactful of these exhibitions is proposed to be the International Photographic Exhibition at Grand Central Palace in New York City in the spring of 1938.

This exhibition, sponsored by Willard Morgan of Leica Photography (magazine founded in 1932), brought great reviews. Hurley quotes Elizabeth Causland, art critic for the Springfield, Massachusetts, Sunday Union and Republican:

After the usual diet of the art world— cream puffs, eclairs, and such— the hard bitter reality of these photographs is the tonic the soul needs. They are like a sharp wind, sweeping away the weariness, the fever and the fret of life. For so grim is the truth they present that the vapors of pseudo-intellectual culture are immediately dispelled. In them, we see the faces of the American people. The American people which lives under the threat of unemployment, hunger, and eviction.

Within weeks, The Museum of Modern Art had offered to take the entire show on the road throughout the United States. That same summer Walker Evans show of work completed during his tenure with the FSA was announced— American Photographs— which would also be published in book form. US Camera decided to feature some of the photographs from this show in their 1938 annual. Around this same time, interest from the commercial sectors regarding picture books began to rise. Hurley finally credits the commercial and critical success of You Have Seen Their Faces in his selective retelling. He credits it with stimulating Archibald MacLeish with the idea for his collaboration with the FSA, Land of the Free. He also mentions one I haven’t seen yet— How the Other Half is Housed by Rupert Vance in 1936. Stryker supposedly collaborated on this one, and it is introduced way out of chronological order. He mentions the release of the movie version of Grapes of Wrath, again way out of order— and does not mention the photographic roots of that project, or Horace Bristol.

The remainder of the chapter is a mish-mash of gossip regarding the books produced, including the rising tension between Lange and Stryker regarding her desire to print her own negatives, some slight gestures at Rosskam’s books, and Arthur Raper’s Sharecroppers All. By 1940, Hurley remarks that the work of the Historical section had made them stars and the subject of articles themselves— including “You Have Seen Their Pictures” in the April 1940 Survey Graphic.