Glenn Uminowicz - August 2009
The Power of the Picture
This is exactly the power of the picture, the great importance of the whole field of photojournalism. And the reason why it’s so important to a photographer to be basically an honest person is because the photographer has a great deal of responsibility to the readers. Just as a writer has to write honestly and truthfully about what he sees and thinks and does, a photographer has to make pictures that are honest and truthful.
– From an interview with photographer Arthur Rothstein
In 1964, an interview was recorded with photographer Arthur Rothstein for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. He was then serving as Director of Photography for Look magazine, but much of the interview focused on Rothstein’s work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression.
Under the able leadership of agricultural economist Roy Stryker, a photographic section operated under the auspices of a number of federal agencies but became most identified with the FSA. Photographers traveled on assignment around the country and pointed their cameras “not merely at government projects, but at anything in the rural scene which seems significant to them.” They were tasked with creating a “picture record” of rural America that appeared in government publications, guidebooks and major magazines. Between 1935 and 1942, Rothstein and several other FSA photographers ensured that the Eastern Shore became part of that record.
In 1964, Rothstein’s interviewer inquired as to whether a photograph taken alone made a “fairly neutral statement.” Wasn’t it how a picture was used and the caption applied to it that delivered a pro or con judgment on an issue? Rothstein replied that the “power of the picture” resulted from the photographer capturing images that were honest and truthful.
The observation proved consistent with the approach of FSA photographers, whose cameras became an “instrument of social science.” As veteran photographer Ansel Adams once complained to Roy Stryker, “What you’ve got are not photographers. They’re a bunch of sociologists with cameras.”
In an essay on FSA photography, historian Lawrence W. Levine observed that a photograph proves beguiling because it does appear to be the “quintessential objective document – reality in black and white.” In fact, photographic images have always been collected and filtered through other hands. FSA photographers were well known for composing their images. In 1936, Rothstein, for example, took an iconic photo of an Oklahoma farmer and his children, “Fleeing a Dust Storm.” To illustrate his subjects’ struggle against the harsh winds and dust, he asked them to lean forward into the wind.
Levine acknowledged that FSA photographers helped mold the culture in which they lived, but they never stood wholly apart from it. He concluded, “They were not coolly detached observers making disinterested portraits of a people apart.”
Rothstein took pictures that demonstrated a respect for hard labor and the dignity of toil. In 1937, he made a statement to that effect with beautifully composed images of a farmer in Queen Anne’s County harvesting wheat, and bean pickers near Cambridge.
In 1937, Rothstein documented a strike at the Phillips Packing Company in Cambridge. Two thousand cannery workers sought to unionize the plant under the American Federation of Labor. Violence broke out. Company vehicles were overturned and one striker died after being hit by a truck. Police arrested an African-American cannery worker and released him after a crowd estimated at one thousand strikers and sympathizers surrounded the jail. The crowd included both black and white workers. The union organizers called for calm among the strikers and arranged for a meeting with management. As an act of good faith, strikers righted the overturned trucks at the plant.
The Phillips Packing Company strike illustrated a new militant unionism sparked by New Deal legislation to protect workers’ right to organize. It also reflected efforts by union organizers to forge a labor movement that crossed racial lines. From Syracuse, New York, to Fresno, California, the labor dispute in Cambridge made national headlines, as the cannery workers joined the 4.7 million Americans involved in labor actions during 1937.
In addition to documenting headline-making aspects of rural life, FSA photographers captured the essentials of everyday existence. Levine insisted, “They accomplished far more than the depiction of American anguish; they created a record of American life. The photographers may have set about documenting the immediate impact of the severe economic depression, but they succeeded in creating a remarkable portrait of their countrymen’s resiliency and culture.”
In 1940, photographer Jack Delano took a series of photos in and around Salisbury. He photographed a gypsy family. The father worked as a boiler man in town and the children helped promote a roadside palm-reading business. A banner advised, “Ruth: If Your in Bad Luck or Health, See Her. She’ll Answer Any ? You Wish.” Delano also visited a July 4th celebration in Salisbury, taking images of activities that included a beauty pageant and a soapbox derby. While Americans suffered materially and psychically during the Depression, Levine pointed out that they also raised kids, shopped and went to a movie or a ball game. Regarding images like those from Salisbury, Levine concluded, “What scholars are too prone to dismiss as the ‘trivia’ of life are revealed by these sources to be often integral parts of life’s essence.”
In 1941, the Phillips Packing Company again served as a subject for an FSA photographer. John Collier determined to take a series of photographs that documented the production of canned goods from the field to the shipping room. As with Rothstein, Collier posed his subjects to emphasize the dignity of work. The same held true for Reginald Hotchkiss, who photographed oyster tongers on the Wicomico during that same year.
Professional photographer Paul Yglesias was shown a selection of FSA photographs and asked to comment for this article. Yglesias also digitally restores historic photographs and has an appreciation for images as historical documents. He observed that the FSA images represented “photography at its best.” They documented a specific period, but also possessed a timeless quality. He appreciated the careful composition of photographs like the oyster tongers on the Wicomico or the Queen Anne’s farmer harvesting wheat.
FSA photographers sought to document “American types” – a sharecropper, waterman, tenant farmer, migrant worker, a businessman on Main Street, a woman tending her garden, the unemployed, and ragged children. The photographers were not unique. Under the New Deal, writers employed by the Federal Writers Project conducted interviews with a wide and representative spectrum of Americans, including an important series of interviews with ex-slaves. The Federal Theater project produced plays about “American life.” Artists adorned public buildings with murals about America at work, rendered in a heroic style that celebrated ordinary people in their daily struggle to survive.
Franklin Roosevelt drew criticism for supporting thousands of writers, graphic artists, sculptors, painters, actors and photographers through a variety of New Deal programs. FDR advisor Harry Hopkins anticipated the criticism and famously observed, “Artists need to eat too.” During the current recession, however, criticism of funding for cultural activities has been widely heard at both the state and federal levels. It has been argued, for example, that $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts provides no stimulus.
Roosevelt once said, “A hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief.” Currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibit 1934: A New Deal for Artists documents FDR’s cultural legacy. That legacy also includes over 250,000 photographs documenting rural life taken by FSA photographers. In the Nation’s Capital, our federal legislators do not have far to go to access this extraordinary record of everyday life in America during hard times. These images are stored in a place known as the Library of Congress.