Research into FSA project

FSA – Research

  • All images are in the public domain as from the American congress website. There are no known restrictions to these photos. 

‘The bitter years’ was the term used to reference the time of the great depression, stock market crash, the serious drought in the South and the ensuing chaos of the migrant workers that took the FSA photographers with their penetrating gaze into the midst of some of the poorest and most destitute areas of South West America.

One of the iconic figures to come out of that phase of photography was the famous Florence Thomson, photographed by Dorothea Lang, one of the FSA’s most well recognised photographers employed at the time. This image, although as we later learned was staged to some degree, is often the symbol for the distressing plight of the masses of that period. Thomson was a pea picker in Niporno, California and appeared to live in what looked like a tent, with two of her children. The images of the FSA project largely speak for themselves and appear to follow in the line of early documentary with its objective appearance. (Koetzle, 2005: 189) [1]

“The photographers chosen for this task were: Charlotte Brooks, Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Harold Corsini, Arnold Eagle, Theodor Jung, Sol Libsohn, Carl Mydans, Martha McMillan Roberts, Edwin Rosskam, Louise Rosskam, Richard Saunders, Ben Shahn, Roy Stryker, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott.”  [2]

Lange evidently was on her way home, something told her to turn back and guided her into an encampment of two thousand five hundred destitute labour workers. Thomson was in a field, in a tent with several of her children. As Lange approached she began to shoot. Reportedly between five or six images were taken (different accounts give different numbers). The main photo that we know so well, ‘Migrant Mother’ sits like an eternal icon that embraces all that could have been said about that era, and the shear pain of it. Evidently, Lange engaged very little with her subject, asking her age. One imagines some kind of interaction took place later, but who knows. In this case, what Is curios is that Lange was hired to Bolster the Roosevelt “New deal” program, which would generate interest in the public and allow government to spend money in order to reverse this dreadful trend of poverty taking place. Later, as we know, this image became the securing force for Lange´s own photography career as well as making her economically sound in her own life. The sad aspect of this is that it did not especially benefit the subject, Thomson.  However, in general the photo did stimulate a food distribution program, which in my view does show us that the skilful use of documentary can justify and support social action. (Koetzle, 2005) [3]

Looking earlier at the ‘Appalachian Trail’ images by Oestervang, one gets the sense of a ringing of the past in the present in these images. The sense of relative poverty, lack and filth and lack of self respect can be seen to arrive into some of these pictures as can those of Shelby Lee that inspired Oestervang. However, the subject is one of severe hardship (FSA) and although I can see similarities in the documentary style and poverty line, in the end it is not entirely the same.

learning from Stott about documentary

Stott’s book is fascinating and in fact may be one of the most influential texts that I have read so far in the area of documentary. In general the reference to documentary is not contained to a particular style or medium but rather is to do with content (Stott, 1973) [4]. Perhaps the most important concept to be learnt here is the simple two fold definition of the word document. In effect Stott highlights that a document can incline towards the factual, historical and informative on a intellectual level or can be what is known as a ‘human document’. The more biographically intentioned document provides us with an emotionally rewarding and educating experience and often portrays the ‘human condition’ so often referred to in photography. The human condition is something that often fascinates us and it is by listening to the lives of others that we can sometimes learn a lot about ourselves. 

This “glimpse of the inner world” that Stott points to aims itself towards the emotions, and perhaps even refining and developing one’s capacity to feel more fully.

Whereas as according to Ronald Berman the media can do a lot of damage to people projecting messages that illicit reactivity and: ‘express it with as much moral damage as possible‘ (Berman, cited in Stott, 1973:17) [5]. The human kind of document aims it seems to offer a bridge into human connectivity and experience.

One of the questions is then: Did the FSA project give rise to the desired results i.e did it instigate social betterment and improve the lives of those people that were so destitute? Roosenvelt, during his period of administration appeared to believe that consequences were man made and therefore remediable. Whereas, the industrialist, Edgar Hoover seemed to think quite the opposite, almost as if to hold a fatalist position that it was nature and inevitable. Roosenvelt pointed out that the economic decisions that a country makes are always man made, not nature made and therefore correctives can be put in place.

Russell Lee (July 21, 1903 – August 28, 1986)

Lee was trained as chemist, went to military academy and finally was hired by Stryker to participate in the FSA project as a staff photographer. He joined Stryker again in 1945 in the office of war information, joining the army as a photographer photographing airfields.

Lee used (and we imagine most photographers did) a 4×5 camera, heavy to carry, locate and use.

Russell Lee’s work within the FSA appears to focus more on infrastructure than people, each photographer appears to have had their assignment. The work that they produced largely falls into the category of cataloging information pertinent to first class of documentary and the second class i.e. ‘human documents’. This is not exclusively the case. Lee also shot people in the camps doing work. However, one can appreciate that the work was largely to provide the government and presumably future generations with a tangible sense of what took place in American history.

Ben Shahn

Shahn’s documentary style seemed to capture something of the spirit of the person, perhaps a little more so than some of the other FSA photography I have seen so far. It is interesting to compare (given the mass of imagery) the different photographic styles of the FSA group of photographers and it is noticeable how the personal emphasis shines through. In Shahn’s case, there are many people of colour in his images. He gives the impression of engaging the subject in a different way. People often seem more relaxed and open in the images as compared to some of the work by Lee for example.

Marion post Walcott

Post was born in Montclair, N.J., in 1910, the daughter of wealthy parents. She attended boarding school and later taught children while studying early childhood education at the New School for Social Research and New York University. Her mother worked for Margaret Sanger, the famous women’s health advocate, and as a result of this relationship, both mother and daughter became part of a group of writers and artists in New York City. [ ]

Post pursued studies in photography initially in Vienna and later back in the states. The rise of the Nazi party forced the university where she was studying to close and her and her family left for America.

Her focus was mainly on the social aspects of her photographed subjects.

This was one of a group of photos that I picked up by Post, and the first thing to strike me is that there is no attempt in photographing the children, to come down to their height (a standard portrait procedure for children). Was the technique unknown at this stage, or simply that it would have been seen to contradict the documentary nature of the situation, adding an interpretation. Was she also working with a 4×5 or did she carry something more movie (35mm or range camera?). If she worked with a 4×5 it would of been up high on a tripod this impeding this lower view vantage point.

Arthur Rothstein

Video about Rothstein:

  • Many more images by Rothstein available through the link

Rothstein was an interesting character. A graduate from university he wanted to become a doctor, but Stryker with his keen eye for good photographers, found him and drew him into his team. Rothstein claims to have invented the so called ‘unobtrusive method’ as he hays “out of necessity” for the situation that he found himself. This adapting sensitively to conditions to me opened my eyes about the degree of awareness that some of these photographers were working with.

His first session was in the blue mountains not far from Washington D.C. involved in a resettlement program. It is difficult to imagine in a way that these provincial peoples were going to be uprooted from all that they had known, living close to nature, to be thrust into a new environment and have their homes and taken taken from them.

Rothstein was the first photographer to be hired by Stryker on his team, prior to being known as the FSA project.

Walker Evans

Leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste and reputations, the matter of art in photography many come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt’

-Walker Evans

Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938

In late 1935, Evans was hired as an Information Specialist with the Resettlement (later Farm Security) Administration.  He was expected to use photography to document the plight of the rural poor and the achievements of the New Deal.  During his employment for the government, Evans photographed in areas of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee.  The images he produced during this time were frequently focused on portraiture, domestic interior scenes, urban streets, or architectural construction.   [6]

Much more is know about Evans in the general field of photography as he was considered a high level artistic photographer and had a respected reputation before coming into the field of the FSA. If Evans had a speciality, it would be capturing I believe portraits in a particular way as to reveal something definite about the personality of the individual. As commented by other authors of the FSA project, one thing that stands out universally in all of the FSA photos is the individuality of the characters. Each one seems to be his/her ‘own person’. So perhaps in this sense it was not so difficult to capture these people in that way, as there was very little pretence or artifice of the modern city dweller. They were earthy, honest and straightforward people perhaps?

Compared to many of the portraits we see Evans in the example above drawing the character of the person out and focusing exclusively on the first plane of the image eradicating context setting. The plain, cabin wall backdrop becomes a studio style setting for the portrait.

Margaret Bourke-White

More can be read about Bourke-White here:

Labelled as a somewhat cold photographer not really connecting with people, as far as I can see Bourke’s initial work was with the author of the fiction novel ‘have you seen their faces’ written by Erskine Caldwell. She went out and shot photos in the field with him, working with him as he connected with the subjects. Later Bourke describes how the photos and the experience in the ‘dust bowl’ changed her, brining her more into relationship with people and humanity. Evidently she started refusing commercial assignments after and decided to use her work to benefit humanity.

Her initial assignments could be described as more industrial in nature, such as infrastructure and buildings.

I find this story quite touching as it goes to show the power of photography on the photographer themselves. That the subject we chose to identify with will have an effect on our own conciseness and ethical outlook.


As Stott highlights in words by Grierson, the originator of the term documentary, one must appeal to and educate the emotions through the use of documentary if in the end perhaps we are to see a genuine change in a persons attitude or a collective shift in society towards a theme. For me personally this research has been a very moving study. For a long time I have doubted that documentary has anything to offer beyond the simple showing of facts. Many projects that I see today seem to be more sensationalist in nature and aiming at a rewarded return from the viewer in some way. These images to me, seem filled with feeling and connection to the subject. They are not cold or distant. Therefore it gives me hope that I as a photographer may be able to develop this side of my own practice using something of the combinations of what Mraz argued would be perhaps the ideal form of documentary as that which : ‘fuses information and expression, document and symbol’. (Mraz, 2002) [7].



  1. Koetzle, H.M. Photo Icons, the story behind the pictures (2005) Taschen.
  2. Depression era photography [online] [accessed February, 2020
  3. Koetzle, H.M. Photo Icons, the story behind the pictures (2005) Taschen.
  4. Stott, W. Documentary expression and thirties America (1973) The university of chicago press [online] [accessed, February 2020]
  5. Stott, W. (1973) Ronald Berman in Documentary expression and thirties America [online] [accessed, February 2020]
  6. Website:[ ] [accessed, February 2020]
  7. Mraz, J. ways of seeing latin america (2002) OCA folder, pg 39

Useful websites related to the FSA project (not included in above page):

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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