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HomeContentsThemes > Great Depression

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Following the Stock Market Crash of 24 October 1929 America and most of the industrialized world was thrown into a rapid economic downslide. Companies collapsed, farms had to be sold, homes were repossessed and unemployment expanded as governments experimented with different approaches to try and recover. This appalling situation was exacerbated by a series of droughts in the middle of the decade that had turned many of the southern plains into a Dust Bowl where crops where increasingly difficult if not impossible to grow. The states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and Arkansas were all badly affected and vast numbers of farmers were forced to leave the land.
The Black Blizzards
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Unidentified photographer
One of South Dakota's Black Blizzards 
1934 (ca)
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Unidentified photographer
Dust Storm in Rolla, Kansas; - 05/06/35; Dear Mr. Roosevelt, Darkness came when it hit us. Picture taken from water tower one hundred feet high. Yours Truly, Chas. P. Williams. - Photo: Massive Dark cloud approaching village in forefront. 
1935, 14 April
  
When researching the FSA there are a large number of well known images of the migrants and the deserted communities and tent cities. The pictures shown here are not of great quality but they are important as they show the terrifying nature of what was happening to the towns as the Black Blizzards swept in.
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This was the hard world that John Steinbeck described in his novel 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1939) - a world where good people struggle to survive in a social, economic and physical environment over which they have no control. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'New Deal' instituted a number of government programs to mitigate of the effects of the environmental and economic hardships. The organizations that were established examined not only the Dust Bowl areas but the vast industrial heartland of America that had been so affected by the Depression.
 
Public work creation programs were initiated and in America these included using photographers to document the social conditions of the working population and the programs that were introduced. One of the government initiatives was the 'Resettlement Administration (RA)' that was established by executive order in April 1935. In August 1935 Ben Shahn moved to Washington D.C. to assist in the graphic work required for its posters, pamphlets and larger scale murals. Where appropriate he used photography as a design aid. In another branch of the same organization, the Historical Section of the Information Division, Roy Emerson Stryker (1893-1975) was the director and he was using a talented group of photographers to go out and take photographs as evidence of what was happening.
 
The first issue of Life (23 November 1936) included a photo-essay by Margaret Bourke-White on a work project. The 'Farm Security Administration (FSA)' in the United States was created by the Department of Agriculture in September 1937 and Ben Shahn joined the photographers working with Roy Emerson Stryker at the same time. The photographers came and went as the RA changed to the FSA and later the OWI but they shared a common commitment in a socially responsible photography where by creating a record of actual conditions nobody could deny that there was a need for action. The photographs were supplied to the media but they served the greater purpose of highlighting social problems and thereby making it easier to get political support for necessary reform. As the reforms took place the photographs supplied evidence of the effects the government programs were having. Many of the most enduring images of American history came out of the FSA and its lesser known ancestors and descendents. The works of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange are well known, but there are another fifteen or so who are also important at the three key organizations (RA, FSA and the later OWI):

 
FSA - Notable photographers
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Edwin Locke
Walker Evans 
n.d.
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Unidentified photographer
Dorothea Lange 
1936, February
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Carl Mydans
Carl Mydans 
1935
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Unidentified photographer
Gordon Parks 
1942-1946
Although the term FSA only applies to the Farm Securities Administration there was the USA a series of government agencies that came and went during the 1930's and 40's. The key factor that unified these was a group of talented photographers who joined them for variable lengths of time. They included Gordon Parks who went on to write and direct the film 'Shaft' (1971), Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange who took some of the seminal images of 1930's migrant workers and Carl Mydans who during the Second World War in the Pacific took the iconic photograph of General Douglas MacArthur with his staff coming ashore at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, in the Philippines on January 9, 1945.
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The unit was moved to the 'Office of War Information (OWI)' in 1942 and its documentary work was dissolved the following year. Through its brief history the unit was prolific and the Library of Congress has 164,000 B&W negatives and 1,600 color prints.
The Great Depression
 
American Photographers of the Depression: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and the FSA Photographers (Photofile) 
  
Charles Hagen
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