Regarding the Ordinary American

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition.  That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today.  The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression.  That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.

An FSA photograph by Russell Lee of a family in Pie Town, New Mexico.

Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940.  FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.

Going to town (FSA photograph)

Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’  A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white.  As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.

FSA-houses-factories

Houses and factories.   Unidentified photographer.  From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.

The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science.  Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology.  Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.

All images from the Library of Congress.
Click on an image to go to its source.

4 responses

  1. Susan – once again you have amazed me with a new piece of history! Best of all, you have given it perspective…Love reading about this and realizing that it wasn’t that long ago—so see how much has changed in a short time. I have to find more of these photos! Thanks for posting!

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    • Thank you, Michele–the FSA color photos are very resonant–despite the passage of time they remain amazingly powerful. Maybe it’s because they look almost nostalgic, but their content is profound and often more than a little uncomfortable. They are well worth looking at, and writing about.
      I always enjoy hearing from you! I sincerely hope all is well.
      Susan

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  2. Great research !! I too enjoyed looking at the historic pictures and reading your commentary. You have a wonderful gift to post such well thought out articles dealing with American history.

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