Documentary photography: A government program that worked


Golden age of American photography? You didn't build that! Roger Cicala recounts how a Farm Security Administration plan "to enhance the public’s perception of the federal aid programs for the destitute" during the Great Depression led to famous photos like Dorothea Lange's "migrant mother":

The FSA hired Roy Stryker, Cicala writes, to demonstrate that "government programs were working."

He knew that photographers were largely out of work because of the Depression, since newspapers and magazines had cut back staffs and people couldn’t afford either portraits or artistic photographs. ...

Stryker approached various newspapers and magazines and offered them photographic essays at absolutely no cost. Most of them, having cut back their photography departments in the Depression, were happy to use free FSA photos, of which almost 270,000 were taken.

Among the people Stryker hired: Lange, of course, as well as Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks. Much of their work is available for online perusal in the Library of Congress' archives. The FSA eventually vanished and few of the photographers' subjects prospered due to their documentation, Cicala writes, but:

The photographers, however, benefitted greatly. Dorothea Lange became the first fine art photographer on the faculty of the California School of Fine Art. Gordon Parks’ career can’t be covered in a few sentences: he was remarkably successful as a photographer, filmmaker, writer, and composer. Walker Evans became a writer for Time magazine and a faculty member at Yale University School of Fine Art. Arthur Rothstein was director of photography for Look magazine. I could go on for quite a while: the FSA photographers were among the most successful American photographers of the 20th Century.

Also in recent photography news:

• A photo-driven account by Reuters photographer Jonathan Alcorn about waking up Lloyd Shapley to tell him he'd won the Nobel Prize in economics.

• Reporters and photographers train for war reporting in the Bronx.

• BuzzFeed sued for running celebrity images a photo agency says it owns.

• Paul Nicklen won Wildlife Photographer of the Year for this astonishing photo of penguins in the Ross Sea.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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