Documentary Photography

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Focusing mainly on a comparison between photographers and their styles, this essay intends to investigate the efforts carried out by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration. In order to fully appreciate their hard work it is essential to understand the history and motivation behind the program.

During the 1930s the whole of America was thrown into turmoil due to the Stock Market crash on October 29th 1929, which led to the largest economic depression in modern history. This along with the dustbowl disaster, caused by severe drought, dust storms and over farming the land, hit the poorest communities the hardest and many were left unemployed and homeless. American farmers and their families were forced to find work elsewhere, making the long journey to California; however they were faced with an already existent high unemployment rate. Available work was extremely hard to find so these now homeless families joined others in camps set up along the side of the roads, unfortunately, with the extreme poor living conditions, disease was rife.

The film the Grapes of Wrath, 1940 based on the novel by John Steinbeck, 1939, provides visual impact and additional perspective to this era of hardship. Steinbeck was heavily influenced by images taken by Dorothea Lange of the FSA.

The Farm Security Administration, originally named the Resettlement Administration, was set up by the Department of Agriculture in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal economic campaigns. Designed to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression, the FSA helped the poorest segments of farming society, by providing work relief to the unemployed. Farmers and their families were resettled in large government-owned farms; this was the much-needed support the people were desperate for.

The FSA was noted for its small but extremely influential photography program that realistically represented challenges endured. “Producing some 270,000 images”1 selected ones appeared in popular magazines and newspapers providing educational material for the public; the FSA adopted a goal of ‘introducing America to Americans’2. This was essentially the start of documentary photography with a specific purpose. Photographers with the documentary style focus mainly on people and their social conditions, “images in the documentary style combine lucid pictorial organisation with an often passionate commitment to humanistic values to ideals of dignity, the right to decent living and work conditions, to truthfulness”3. This was the main aim of the FSA.

Leader of the programme, Roy Stryker, suggested ideas for desirable images, he sought imagery of migratory workers that would tell a story about how they lived day-to-day. This could have been seen as control over what images to take and staging to give maximum impact, but even so the results helped in providing aid to those who needed it. Furthermore, the photographers did not personally own their negatives and had no control over how they would be published, only the most heartfelt images made it to the public’s attention, this was in order to gain as much support as possible.

Dorothea Lange is one of the most famous and influential documentary photographers employed by the FSA. Lange, incidentally, disliked the label “documentary”… but never found a word she liked better; her photographs emphasised the tragic circumstances during the Great Depression4. Prior to this, Lange owned and worked in her photographic studio in San Francisco taking family portraits for the wealthy who could afford the luxury. America was beginning its economic decline and Lange would see the poor and unemployed walking the streets. Compelled by this human anguish, she took her camera and travelled around until she found a food station (breadline) set up by a wealthy woman (White Angel).

White Angel Breadline, 1934

Lange took many photographs that day but this image is one of the most effective. The poor, unshaven man, leaning, hunched over on a railing with a tin can between his arms, his hands clenched and his back turned on the other men. This and the light falling on his cap makes him stand out, luring the viewer in. There is no eye contact, as the man doesn’t appear to be aware of Lange’s presence, which further adds to the fascination of this man’s plight. Lange positions herself above the crowd pointing the camera down, this emphasises a sense of vulnerability and neediness of poor. The viewer, namely the urban audience, experiences a sense of moral guilt and responsibility.

This series of photographs proved inspirational for Lange, it was the first time she had taken images of this subject matter in a documentary style, from then on she continued to apply her creative imagination and began to see photography as more of an art form. “I wanted to take a picture of a man as he stood in his world – in this case, a man with his head down… with his livelihood, like the wheelbarrow, overturned”.5 These studies of the poor led to her future employment with the FSA.

Her best know photograph, Migrant Mother, 1936, is a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson with three of her seven children; this image became the icon and symbol of the suffering caused by the Great Depression and captured the attention of the entire country. It was published in the San Francisco News on March 10th, 1936, and led to relief for the camp where the woman was staying.

Lange took 5 photos in a very short period of time of this family working her way closer and closer. It is said that the whole shoot only lasted fifteen minutes as Lange was on her way home from completing her assignment. This intimate portrait creates personal anxiety; the fear in the mother’s eyes and the body language communicates tension, the children are turned inwards and away from Lange displaying vulnerability. They all appear to be wearing dirty, ragged clothes and sheltered by a worn out, cloth tent. With the small child resting on her lap, this very poignant and important photograph appears in some ways to resemble the religious depiction of the Madonna and child, the two children either side of her represent two cherubs, perfectly framing her quizzical, anguished expression. This sparked huge emotional responses and still does to this day.

Almost thirty years later, Lange recalled her account of her encounter with Florence and her children:

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tyres from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it”.6

The family remained anonymous for some years but according to the mother’s son, Lange got some of the details of this story wrong, nevertheless the impact of the picture greatly helped towards the FSA’s purpose.

Lange’s photographs tended to tell a story, often sending a powerful social message and the idea that photographs could influence people to help the oppressed members of society was a theme in almost all of Lange’s work.

Following America’s involvement in World War II, the Farm Security Administration’s activities were greatly reduced. There was no longer a need for the programme and congress replaced it with the Farmers Home Administration, which helped in financing farms for tenants. During WW2, Japanese Americans were placed in camps as a result of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. Even though she was opposed to these camps, Dorothea Lange started working for the War Relocation Authority. By photographing the people who were interned there she hoped that once people saw her images, and what was happening, the internment would stop.

Lange’s confident approach meant she was a significant figure in expressing the humanism of documentary photography. “She was repeatedly represented in popular journals as the “mother” of documentary: the little woman who cut through ideas by evoking personal feeling”.7 Her position in the construction and understanding of the documentary style was as much different to, but every bit as important as Walker Evans’ work.

Evans joined the FSA in 1935; Roy Stryker was captivated and influenced by his already established systematic style of documenting city life, culture and architecture where he lived in New York. “He used an 8×10 view camera and insisted his right to realise his own particular concept of documentation”.8 Stryker very much admired how Evans worked, however they didn’t always see eye to eye due to differences in personality, “it also reflected the conflict between Evans’ ideal of creating a pure record and Stryker’s concern with producing photographs useful to the agency and promoting political or social change.”9

During his time with the FSA, Evans collaborated with writer James Agee for Fortune Magazine. Their assignment was to produce an article raising the issues of the conditions that the farmers and their families endured, the two men spent a couple of months living among three families and recording daily life. Their work was never published for its intended purpose, although it finally emerged as a lengthy, highly influential and original book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and subsequent exhibition.

Evans, Floyd Burroughs, 1936

The Burroughs’s were one of the families Evans and Agee observed (their names were changed to the Grudgers to obscure their identity for the purpose of the book) and like Lange’s Migrant Mother collection, Evans took many photographs of them. Roy Stryker only chose the most heartfelt and responsive images out of the collection to be published. Burroughs appears to be projecting a hard, plaintive yet anxious stare; he emanates a sense of uneasiness, which along with Migrant Mother came to represent an iconic image of the inextinguishable endurance. His dirty, torn workman’s clothes, unshaved face and scruffy hair were a familiar sight among the farming communities during this time.

This is another photograph Evans took of Floyd Burroughs, one that didn’t make it to publication. His overall appearance, clothes, hair and clean shave face make him look a lot neater. Roy Stryker also believed that his smirking expression made him appear almost cynical and his stance made it impossible for anyone to associate him as a struggling farmer, especially a struggling farmer in need of government money.

Bud Fields and Family, 1936

Evans has arranged the Fields family, whom he also observed during this three-month period, within the family home; their poses seem relaxed considering their circumstances. The room they are in looks shabby, worn down and dirty yet it is also extremely neat with no clutter, the only visible personal item being a photo frame on the shelf. Their clothes are all grubby and even the bed linen looks unclean. The older lady is the only one wearing shoes. The mother is cradling her sleeping child, making religious reference to the Madonna and child once again. With his father holding him securely in place, the little boy looks playful; he’s not wearing any trousers and seems to be behaving like any child would when having to pose for a photograph, this gives the viewer an impression that they are just like any ordinary family. This is an interesting comparison to Lange’s Cherub children; these two particular images emphasise their different approaches and thoughts of what of documentary imagery should be.

Most certainly, the 1930s marked an age where documentary photography created a unique social consciousness of America and by far the two greatest photographers to be employed by the FSA were indeed Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. They have very different styles and approaches to their medium of photography, Lange looked for particular image opportunities that would capture a mood sometimes staging the image for maximum impact, Roy Stryker even had no problem in suggesting how to pose photographs or change surroundings in order to establish significance. Evans, on the other hand, preferred to stay true to his beliefs that the camera doesn’t lie, “Walker Evans was the most renowned for his refusal to manipulate an image in any way and his repeated assertions that he subverted his art for the simple depiction of a moment”. 10

Evans seems to have more of a photographer to sitter relationship with most of his subjects, he would rather have them looking in to the camera creating a bond between subject and viewer, this engagement evokes and questions people’s thoughts on the issues being raised. Lange’s approach tends to capture her subjects looking away into the distance, creating similar responses to Evans’ work but from a different point of view. She would engage with them but would start to photograph once they had relaxed with her presence. “She would walk through the field and talk to people, asking simple questions – ‘what are you picking? How long have you been here? I’d like to photograph you… they would pose a little, but she would sort of ignore it and walk around until they forgot us and were back at work then she would begin to take her pictures”.11 Neither photographer is better than the other, they are both brilliant in their own way, one thing that is for sure is that “the impact of the Great Depression on rural communities has been perceived by latter generations on the basis of key images”12 such as Migrant Mother and Floyd Burroughs.

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