These days, government-run social programs aim to accomplish a range of diverse objectives. There are programs that provide anything from healthcare and housing to sack lunches and free phones. Photographers can get government support, too, largely through the National Endowment for the Arts. But in 1930, at the onset of the Depression years, both federal social programs and government financing of the arts was in its infancy. This was about to change. As part of the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration sought to put people to work and create a fledgling welfare system, and a small part of that included a program intended to promote rural photography. Regardless of your thoughts about the New Deal, it’s easy to recognize that this small program had an important influence on American photography — and on the American psyche in general.
The program, which lasted from 1935 to 1944, was part of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The primary purpose of the FSA was to improve the lives and livelihoods of America’s rural poor. This was accomplished by investing in improved farming technology, promoting different methods of land use, and encouraging a system of collectivized farming in some areas. As part of the program, writers and photographs were hired to document the hardships suffered by the rural poor, with the goal being that these people would be less marginalized and more recognized in the broader American society. Three of the most famous photographers on the project were Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, and Gordon Parks. Pictures taken by the three in migrant camps and sharecropping towns became some of the most iconic in American history.
Pictures taken through the FSA program left an indelible mark on the American psyche. The death 40 years later of the main subject in Lange’s Migrant Woman made national news, the photographs are most often associated with national conceptions of poverty, and the images forever changed America’s relationship with the rural west. From a purely photographic standpoint, the pictures also played an influential role in the development of another important medium: the documentary. Stark landscape images, simple portraits, and visuals that suggest a sort of weighty depth are all elements that early documentary-makers took from the FSA photos.
Since the disbandment of the FSA, pictures have gained color and vibrancy. They have documented wars and historical social movements. But no individual photography program, and certainly no government-funded one – has had the far-reaching influence of the FSA.
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