Documentary Photography. Focusing mainly on a comparison between photographers and their styles, this essay intends to investigate the efforts carried out by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration.

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Liz Purdue

Focusing mainly on a comparison between photographers and their styles, this essay intends to investigate the efforts carried out by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration. In order to fully appreciate their hard work it is essential to understand the history and motivation behind the program.

During the 1930s the whole of America was thrown into turmoil due to the Stock Market crash on October 29th 1929, which led to the largest economic depression in modern history. This along with the dustbowl disaster, caused by severe drought, dust storms and over farming the land, hit the poorest communities the hardest and many were left unemployed and homeless. American farmers and their families were forced to find work elsewhere, making the long journey to California; however they were faced with an already existent high unemployment rate. Available work was extremely hard to find so these now homeless families joined others in camps set up along the side of the roads, unfortunately, with the extreme poor living conditions, disease was rife.

The film the Grapes of Wrath, 1940 based on the novel by John Steinbeck, 1939, provides visual impact and additional perspective to this era of hardship. Steinbeck was heavily influenced by images taken by Dorothea Lange of the FSA.

The Farm Security Administration, originally named the Resettlement Administration, was set up by the Department of Agriculture in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal economic campaigns. Designed to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression, the FSA helped the poorest segments of farming society, by providing work relief to the unemployed. Farmers and their families were resettled in large government-owned farms; this was the much-needed support the people were desperate for.

The FSA was noted for its small but extremely influential photography program that realistically represented challenges endured. “Producing some 270,000 images” selected ones appeared in popular magazines and newspapers providing educational material for the public; the FSA adopted a goal of ‘introducing America to Americans’. This was essentially the start of documentary photography with a specific purpose. Photographers with the documentary style focus mainly on people and their social conditions,  “images in the documentary style combine lucid pictorial organisation with an often passionate commitment to humanistic values to ideals of dignity, the right to decent living and work conditions, to truthfulness”. This was the main aim of the FSA.

Leader of the programme, Roy Stryker, suggested ideas for desirable images, he sought imagery of migratory workers that would tell a story about how they lived day-to-day. This could have been seen as control over what images to take and staging to give maximum impact, but even so the results helped in providing aid to those who needed it. Furthermore, the photographers did not personally own their negatives and had no control over how they would be published, only the most heartfelt images made it to the public’s attention, this was in order to gain as much support as possible.

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Dorothea Lange is one of the most famous and influential documentary photographers employed by the FSA. Lange, incidentally, disliked the label “documentary”… but never found a word she liked better; her photographs emphasised the tragic circumstances during the Great Depression. Prior to this, Lange owned and worked in her photographic studio in San Francisco taking family portraits for the wealthy who could afford the luxury. America was beginning its economic decline and Lange would see the poor and unemployed walking the streets. Compelled by this human anguish, she took her camera and travelled around until she found a ...

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