Intro:

In the 1930s the federal Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) launched a photography initiative to document the effects of the Great Depression on the lives of Americans.  The program spurred a renewed emphasis on photo documentation and yielded the now-iconic images that mold our impressions of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt’s New Deal economic recovery program provided federal employment for photographers hired to record (and, not incidentally, to justify) the federal government’s efforts to relieve destitute farmers in the rural Midwest.  Over 270,000 images comprise this massive social documentary effort.  The photographs of migrant mothers, drought-stricken fields, and unemployment lines elicited compassion across the nation and helped to enlist broad popular support for federal relief programs.

The Henry Art Gallery’s collection contains works by F.S.A. photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, and Jack Delano.  Women for the first time constituted a real force in a photo documentation project and the Henry is lucky to have several examples of work by Lange, Wolcott, and others.  F.S.A photographers documented the personal stories of individuals within the larger tragedy of a national depression.  Through this human connection they revived a taste for realistic representations in art, as well as exploring formal innovations in the medium.

Rural America was not the only region affected by the Great Depression.  Urban centers experienced massive unemployment and poverty.  The Henry’s collection contains images depicting the hopelessness of city life at this time, illustrating the full spectrum of American experiences.  Silent and somber, the F.S.A images tell a haunting story of economic depression. F.S.A. photographers helped pave the way for post-World War II photographers who would in turn document and influence the great social reforms of the 1950s, 60s and beyond.

Jill Hardy

(Dorothea Lange: Migrant Agricultural Worker. Near Holtville, California)

{pnm-video}

Dorothea Lange (U.S., 1895–1965)

Migrant Agricultural Worker. Near Holtville, California. 1937

Gelatin silver print

7 7/8 x 7 5/8 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 92.20

Perhaps the photographer most closely identified with the Farm Security Administration and the Great Depression is Dorothea Lange. Her iconic images simultaneously convey the bleak economic situation and the strength of the subjects. The F.S.A. frequently sent her to document migrant farming communities in California’s central valley.  The soiled shoes, torn hat, and dirty clothes of the former farmer in Migrant Agricultural Worker Near Holtville, California combine to convey a portrait of a man disappointed yet retaining an element of pride and strength.

(Russell Lee: Unemployed workers in front of shack with Christmas tree, East 12th Street, NYC)

{pnm-video}

Russell Lee (U.S., 1903–1986)

Unemployed workers in front of shack with Christmas tree, East 12th Street, NYC. 1938

Gelatin silver print

6 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.93

Dorothea Lange referred to Russell Lee as the “the great cataloguer” because of his desire to visually document all facets of the Great Depression. Lee photographed it all, from urban to rural, east to west, and north to south.  The photographer employed longest by the Farm Security Administration, Lee often infused a dry, mildly irreverent humor into his images.  The Christmas tree at the dump in Unemployed workers in front of shack with Christmas tree, East 12th Street, New York could be read as a metaphor for optimism in a landscape of refuse piles.  The men appear devastated, with heads in their hands. The tree adds a poignant element of humanity to their plight.

(Jack Delano: Girl Worker at the Ponemah Mills, Taftsville, Connecticut. Makers of Rayon and Cotton)

{pnm-video}

Jack Delano (U.S., b. Russia, 1914–1997)

Girl Worker at the Ponemah Mills, Taftsville, Connecticut. Makers of Rayon and Cotton. 1940

Gelatin silver print

6 7/8 x 9 1/2 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 79.65

While a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, Jack Delano documented the people and places affected by the Great Depression in the eastern United States.  A master of composition and environmental portraiture, Delano focused on people surrounded by their everyday environments, in ever-more-industrialized cities and ever-more-mechanized factories.  Delano sought to find dignity in subjects who seemed dwarfed by the enormous scale of their work, as in this photograph of a female textile worker. The symmetry of the composition is striking; the subject’s blouse and her position behind hundreds of spools of thread create a repetitive pattern of black and white that conveys the monotony of an assembly line or factory.

(Marion Post Wolcott: Swimming in fountain across from Union Station, Washington, D.C.)

{pnm-video}

Marion Post Wolcott (U.S., 1910–1990)

Swimming in fountain across from Union Station, Washington, D.C.. 1938

Gelatin silver print

6 1/2 x 9 9/16 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 79.132

Marion Post Wolcott was the sole female photographer at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin at the time she was hired by the Farm Security Administration to photograph in the Northeastern and Southern United States.  Wolcott always advocated for the underprivileged, acting from a personal philosophy formed while studying photography in Europe, where she witnessed discrimination against Jewish friends.  During the Great Depression, Wolcott turned to her camera to illustrating economic and racial inequalities. She employed contrast as a metaphor for economic disparities that fell along racial lines.  The boys in Swimming in fountain across from Union Station, Washington, D.C., are caught in graceful and elegant poses, mimicking the statues in the background.

(Marion Post Wolcott: Center of town during blizzard. Brattleboro, Vermont)

{pnm-video}

Marion Post Wolcott (U.S., 1910–1990)

Center of town during blizzard. Brattleboro, Vermont. 1941

Selenium toned gelatin silver print

7 x 9 7/16 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.199

(Marion Post Wolcott: Mother and widow and relatives weeping at grave of deceased at memorial…)

{pnm-video}

Marion Post Wolcott (U.S., 1910–1990)

Mother and widow and relatives weeping at grave of deceased at memorial meeting near Jackson, Kentucky, Breathitt County. 1941

Gelatin silver print

6 7/16 x 9 3/4 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.297

Marion Post Wolcott’s moving Mother and Widow and Relatives Weeping at Grave of Deceased at Memorial Meeting Near Jackson, Kentucky, Breathitt County, is a raw, candid glimpse into the pain of a family dealing with the death of a loved one at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II.  The photograph is composed in a seemingly quick and haphazard fashion that leads the viewer to feel that the mourners are unaware of the photographer.

(Arthur Rothstein: Girl at Gees Bend)

{pnm-video}

Arthur Rothstein (U.S., 1915–1985)

Girl at Gees Bend. 1937

Gelatin silver print

8 13/16 x 12 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 91.22

Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration, hired Arthur Rothstein as the organization’s first official photographer.  At Gee’s Bend in Alabama, Rothstein discovered tenant farmers living in conditions similar to migrant workers in the rest of the country.  To his surprise he noticed the people at Gee’s Bend exuded satisfaction and an unlikely optimism despite the harsh privations of their subsistence lifestyle.  Rothstein declined to depict them as victims, descendants of slaves now suffering the injustices of Jim Crow.  Instead he photographed families in and around their homes, a community still connected to its older African roots.  The little girl looking out the window in Girl at Gee’s Bend is a simple portrait of a simple lifestyle.

(Walker Evans: Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife [Allie Mae Burroughs])

{pnm-video}

Walker Evans (U.S., 1903–1975)

Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife [Allie Mae Burroughs]. 1936

Gelatin silver print

9 1/4 x 7 3/8 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.57

Copyright Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walker Evans created one of the profoundly iconic images of the American Great Depression with this striking portrait of rural poverty.  Photographing extensively in the South, Evans strove to capture a uniquely objective perspective for the Farm Security Administration.  He rejected the Administration’s directive to emphasize the optimism of struggling individuals, and instead remained true to his beliefs that documentary photography should present an unbiased and dispassionate view to the world.  Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife exemplifies his attitude. The subject’s worry and pain are tangible and the viewer cannot help but empathize with her.

(Dorothea Lange: Waiting for the Relief Checks at Calipatria, California)

{pnm-video}

Dorothea Lange (U.S., 1895–1965)

Waiting for the Relief Checks at Calipatria, California. 1937

Gelatin silver print

9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.255

During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Midwestern famers and their families poured into California, competing for limited jobs and land.  Overcrowded migrant camps led to long lines for the government relief checks that were part of the New Deal stimulus package intended to help the unemployed. Trained as a portraitist, Lange would wait to capture a facial expression or hand gesture that gave insight into the life of the person in the image. In Waiting for the Relief Checks at Calipatria, California one face stands out as an individual.  This man’s expression is tired and brooding, his clothes are dusty, and yet Lange portrays his determination and hope.