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‘Made worthy in our anonymity.’ What a vast government photo collection says about America

Our country’s greatest work of public art is only a few keystrokes away

John Collier's "Picture selection from FSA files for war bonds mural in Grand Central Terminal in New York City," 1941JOHN COLLIER/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The three greatest works of American public art are about memory, though only two started out that way.

One is readily accessible to anyone in the vicinity of Boston. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw memorial, across from the State House, commemorates the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, nearly all of them Black, who fell during the Civil War. Another is readily accessible to anyone in the vicinity of Washington, D.C.: Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The third is accessible to anyone in the vicinity of a computer connected to the Internet.

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California," March 1936.DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Library of Congress’ Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection is anything but a single discrete work. It consists of some 175,000 images. Yet insofar as they represent “A Vision Shared,” the title of Hank O’Neal’s groundbreaking 1976 study of the FSA, they very much make up a coherent body of work. They are as close to a visual version of e pluribus unum as this nation is ever likely to have. The photographs were taken by a small group of government photographers between 1935 and 1944. Nearly all of the images — as remarkable in variety as they are in extent — are just a few keystrokes away on the library’s website.

The FSA/OWI collection was not conceived as a government arts commission. At the time, it wasn’t even thought of as art. It began as a hybrid of reportage and public relations: variously hortatory, cautionary, celebratory, and, above all, documentary. Out of that hybridization came two of the best-known photographs of the 20th century, Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Arthur Rothstein’s “Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma.” Another pair are famous, too: Marion Post Wolcott’s photograph of a Black man approaching the segregated entrance of a movie theater and Gordon Parks’s “Washington, D.C., Government Charwoman.”


Arthur Rothstein’s "Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma," April 1936.Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress

The FSA/OWI collection also includes a significant chunk of work by the man many consider the central figure in 20th-century American photography, Walker Evans. Besides Evans, Lange, Parks, Wolcott, and Rothstein, the dozen or so FSA photographers also included the painter Ben Shahn and Carl Mydans. The latter would go on to a distinguished career as a photojournalist at Life magazine.


There’s something else remarkable here. A body of work meant to document US society at a specific moment in time — a moment now on the far side of global depression, world war, and decades of enormous economic and technological change — has remained an enduring presence in the culture. (Now it may assume a further resonance, even an uneasy contemporaneity, thanks to the current economic situation.) In a 1931 essay called “The Reappearance of Photography,” Evans proposed a vision of the medium in which “there is a difference between a quaint evocation of the past and an open window looking straight down a stack of decades.” It could have been a description of the FSA’s ongoing afterlife.

Marion Post Wolcott's "Negro man entering a movie theatre by outside stairway 'For Colored Only' in the Delta area, Belzoni, Mississippi," 1939.MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Last year, Steidl, the world’s leading photography publisher, reissued O’Neal’s book. It consists of portfolios chosen by each photographer (and Shahn’s widow) of his or her best FSA work. In last fall’s rehanging at the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, the FSA got gallery space. Both “Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures,” at MoMA, and “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950,” at the Addison Gallery of American Art, were on exhibit earlier this year. In October, Princeton University Press will publish Svetlana Alpers’s “Walker Evans: Starting From Scratch.” The FSA’s window remains very much unclosed.


The remarkableness doesn’t end there. This body of work was the achievement of a small office within a smallish New Deal agency — part of the US Department of Agriculture, no less — with a budget barely bigger than a battleship’s fuel bill. The original premise was simple enough. The Farm Security Administration started out as the Resettlement Administration. The name would be changed in 1937. The RA was tasked with relocating poor farmers, mainly in the South, and building camps for agricultural workers in California. Photographers were hired to document the agency’s work and, it was hoped, foster public support for its policies. After Pearl Harbor, the unit would join the Office of War Information, hence the other half of the FSA/OWI name.

Gordon Parks's "Washington, D.C. Government charwoman," July 1942.Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The agency arrived at an advantageous moment in visual culture. Photography had long ceased to be exotic. It was as common as the name Kodak, as popular as Life, which began publication in 1936 and soon had the highest circulation of any American magazine. But familiarity was far from oversaturation. The image glut the world would be awash in even before the coming of digital photography and cellphone cameras had yet to overwhelm the visual imagination. Specific images could still stand out, and in standing out stand in for whole ranges of human experience both large and small. It was a situation — an opportunity — the FSA would respond to with unmatched success. Cumulatively, those 175,000 images show a democratic art form in the act of documenting a democratic society, and demonstrating just how good photography could be at democracy and art both.


There’s been nothing like the FSA, before or since, though the great crusading photographer Lewis Hine might be said to have anticipated the thrust of the agency’s work. In a 1909 speech called “Social Photography, How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift,” Hine said, “I wonder, sometimes, what an enterprising manufacturer would do if his wares, instead of being inanimate things, were the problems and activities of life itself, with all their possibilities of human appeal. Would he not grasp eagerly at such opportunities to play upon the sympathies of his customers as are afforded by the camera?” “The problems and activities of life itself,” more specifically American life, was exactly right. The “manufacturer” would be the federal government, and “his customers” interested citizens.

Arthur Rothstein's “Steam Shovels, Cherokee County, Kansas,” from 1936.Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress

It’s no coincidence that those four famous photographs touch on race, inequality, poverty, or all three. Yet insofar as the FSA had any overriding ideology (Evans, for one, was at heart a conservative anarchist) it belonged to what one might call the party of humanity. Decency and uplift are a potent combination, and in the context of ongoing economic crisis they assumed an inevitably partisan shading. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were not a Republican constituency. Today, though, those very qualities help make the photographs seem timeless — and account in no small part for why so many FSA images retain such power. They’re not about issues or policies. They’re about people and, for lack of a better term, American possibility, its promise and its thwarting both.


“To the degree that the FSA . . . had a coherently conceived function,” John Szarkowski once wrote, “it was to make pictures that would explain and dramatize the plight of the rural poor to the urban poor — and thus help preserve the tenuous coalition which had brought the New Deal to power.” Szarkowski, MoMA’s longtime head of photography, was indulging in a bit of deadpan irony, since the FSA never really had a coherent function. That didn’t matter, other than bureaucratically, because it had a coherent approach.

John Vachon's "Nearly exhausted sulfur vat from which railroad cars are loaded, Freeport Sulphur Co., Hoskins Mound, Texas," 1943.John Vachon/Library of Congress

In art, even more than in life, the ad hoc and improvised can produce results as the orderly and systematic rarely can. Underlying the FSA approach was a simple assumption, that seeing is understanding. Underlying that assumption was an equally simple (perhaps simplistic) hope: that seeing, ultimately, is acting. Visually documenting America might in various indefinable ways contribute to improving society.

Soon enough, the mission of the FSA photographers broadened and deepened, almost unimaginably so, extending far beyond recording specific New Deal projects and the conditions those projects were meant to address. More by chance than design, the FSA would undertake the amassing of a national cross-section, a kind of visual census, albeit one with still very much a social conscience.

Marion Post Wolcott's "Mr. R. B. Whitley, Visiting His General Store. He is president of the bank and practically owns and runs the town, Wake County, North Carolina, September 1939."Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress

A term like cross-section does little justice to what the FSA accomplished. The collection documents all 48 states, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Rural and urban are represented, agricultural and industrial, poor and rich and in between. Well, not that many rich, but consider the title of Wolcott’s “Mr. R. B. Whitley, Visiting His General Store. He is president of the bank and practically owns and runs the town, Wake County, North Carolina, September 1939.” You don’t even need the title. The look on Whitley’s face tells you the size of his bank account, and you know damn well whose bank it’s deposited in.

The sheer variousness of visual documentation mirrors that of the nation being documented. The horizontal sweep of Evans’s “Joe’s Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania,” from 1935, finds beauty in its piled up junkers. The very different horizontal sweep of Rothstein’s “Steam Shovels, Cherokee County, Kansas,” from 1936, shows technology on the march, with multiple Mike Mulligan machines crossing the Great Plains atop flatcars. A steam shovel at work, mining sulfur, figures in a John Vachon color image from 1943. (The collection includes about 1,600 color transparencies and slides.)

Dorothea Lange's "The Road West, US 54 in Southern New Mexico," 1938.Dorotha Lange/Library of Congress

Lange’s “The Road West, US 54 in Southern New Mexico," from 1938, looks back to Huck and Jim lighting out for the territory, forward to Sal and Dean on the road, and toward the destination of “Migrant Mother.” That was the highway so many Arkies and Okies took, attempting to reach the promised land of California.

The nocturnal lighting of Jack Delano’s 1941 “Textile Mill Working All Night, New Bedford, Mass.” is stunning. Brassaï’s high-key Paris has nothing on Delano’s higher-key New Bedford. Substance here matters even more than style: Round-the-clock operation testifies to how an economy gearing up for war was finally ending the depression.

John Vachon's "Covington, Kentucky, street corner, 3.33 p.m.,” 1939.John Vachon/Library of Congress

Or what is one to make of Vachon’s “Covington, Kentucky, street corner, 3.33 p.m.,” from 1939? There’s that slightly off-center US flag, above the words “Gee! It’s GREAT to be an AMERICAN.” Are we in the land of subversive irony? Straightforward patriotism? It hardly matters, since in strictly formal terms the image is so wondrously complex — the man on the left, the clock in the middle, the reflections in the window, the signage, the various fonts, the wildly divergent textures of brick, glass, cloth, metal grill — it could be a Surrealist fever dream occurring across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. No wonder Vachon chose it for O’Neal’s book. Yet far from being well known, it’s a reminder of how rich, and endlessly surprising, the collection is.

Roy Stryker, who oversaw the photographers, was an economist by training. His aesthetic instincts left something to be desired. If he didn’t like a negative, he’d use a paper punch on it. Go to the website and you can find Walker Evans negatives with a black hole in the middle. (Evans, you will not be surprised to hear, detested Stryker.) Yet he was a shrewd administrator and indispensably alert to political niceties. “We introduced Americans to America,” he once declared (his italics). That’s a bit much, but you can see both what Stryker meant and the useful political cover so anodyne an agenda might provide.

The most famous FSA images are of “problems,” as Hine would say, but even more are of “activities.” The wonder of these photographs — with their detail, their specificity, their actuality — is how they transcend a concept as trite as introducing Americans to America. It’s true that the collection has its Norman Rockwell moments. Those moments, though, arise not from Saturday Evening Post wish fulfillment but reality.

Consider, as just one example, the aw-shucks charm of Russell Lee’s “Vale, Oregon, Fourth of July,” from 1942. The title all but comes with red-white-and-blue bunting attached. The photograph shows a middle-aged couple holding hands as they swing through the air on a carnival ride. In its humdrum, homespun way, the image is as romantic an evocation of marital love (or maybe they were dating?) as you’ll ever see. Just as “Migrant Mother” belongs to nearly two millennia of Madonna-and-child imagery, so does Lee’s photograph extend (and sweetly deflate) centuries of renderings of courtship. And what could be more American than that immensity of Western sky filling so much of the frame?

Russell Lee's "Vale, Oregon, Fourth of July," 1942.Russell Lee/Library of Congress

To succeed at celebration and indictment both is far from the least of the FSA’s achievements. The challenge with indictment was keeping at bay budget-cutting congressional opponents (Southern Democrats even more than Republicans). Celebration in some ways posed a greater problem. It required overcoming our mind-numbing history of national self-congratulation.

“It is impossible to conceive of more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism,” Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America”; “it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it.” To introduce Americans to America was one thing; to do it in a way that feels genuine and earned, rather than bogus and boosterish, was quite another. The FSA photographers succeeded because they never lost sight of the fact that while observation, documentation, and demonstration differ from celebration, no form of celebration (let alone self-congratulation) has value that doesn’t draw on those other three actions.

In 1938, Evans published a landmark book “American Photographs.” Much of its contents consisted of his FSA work. The poet William Carlos Williams reviewed it for The New Republic. “We see what we have not heretofore realized,” he wrote, “ourselves made worthy in our anonymity.” It’s hard to imagine a better description of the FSA/OWI collection as a whole.

The cultural historian Michael Lesy concludes his 2002 book about the FSA, “Long Time Coming,” this way. The collection, he writes, “is as grand a thing, in its own way as Yosemite or Yellowstone. It’s the common property of every citizen of the United States. It belongs to us. It is us.” Does that sound grandiose, hyperbolic? Decide for yourself. Go to www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa and see your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ tax dollars at work. Watch as the distance between you and a stack of decades disappears. Expect to be captivated — inspired — angered — enlarged — maybe even proud — and amazed, definitely amazed.

Ben Shahn's "Picking Cotton, Pulaski County, Arkansas," October 1935.Ben Shahan/Library of Congress

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.