Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 50

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 50, September 2000

The power of photography

    The photographic corps of the Farm Security Administration
    The echoes of social reality: Walker Evans (1903-1975)
    The power of photography

Earlier this year the New York Museum of Modern Art hosted a new exhibition, 'Walker Evans and Company', a tribute to an earlier generation of radical US photographers. STANLEY MONICK looks at the 1930s work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, whose images of the Great Depression played an important role in shattering the myth of the American Dream.

SOCIETIES ARE FREQUENTLY characterised by myths which shape the collective consciousness of their peoples. US culture is shaped by the mythological driving force of capitalism. The essence of this mythological fabric is that the welfare and betterment of society is guaranteed by the profit motive, the core of the capitalist ethic. This myth was profoundly undermined - indeed shattered - by the Great Depression of 1929-33. This article focuses on the power of documentary photography to highlight and underscore the destruction of the myth of capitalism, encapsulated in its projection of the realities of the Great Depression.

The documentary photograph possesses the tremendous power to visualise history, to capture the movements and tensions within societies in the images which it projects. It exhibits the capability of 'freezing history' within the confines of the camera lens. Realism forms the key element within the documentary photograph. It is essential to bear in mind, however, that the documentary photograph is not merely illustrative. It is driven by the desire to create a fundamentally subjective interpretation of the world captured in the image. This aspect of subjectively interpreted realism forms the overriding priority in this genre. The photographer is in effect stating that social concerns take precedence over aesthetics (eg the dictates of classical composition).


This process is exemplified in the work of two renowned photographers of the depression years in the United States: Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Their work is linked in terms of theme and institutional framework. The theme consisted of the harrowing impact of the Great Depression on America's rural poor. The institutional framework consisted of the government agency which employed them - the photographic corps of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Their work highlights the subjective element within documentary photography; specifically, a highly dramatic visual comment upon the fundamental iniquity - capitalism - which was the source of their subjects' oppression and suffering. The following article does not present a biographical profile or aesthetic appraisal of their work. Rather, it seeks to illustrate the manner in which their photographic images lend weight and power to their political and social commentary.

top     The photographic corps of the Farm Security Administration

THE RESETTLEMENT ADMINISTRATION was founded by President Franklin D Roosevelt's administration following the Democratic Party attaining power in the US presidential elections of 1932. It formed one of the numerous agencies created by executive order to counteract the appalling socio-economic problems created by the Great Depression. The Resettlement Administration was similar to the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Initiated in 1935, the WPA's purpose was to supervise the government relief programmes and to transfer workers from relief rolls to government or private works projects. Many US dams, roads, etc, were constructed through this programme.


The basic tenets of the Resettlement Administration, however, whilst similar to those of the WPA, were specific to the problems of the rural population. Its objectives included low interest loans to existent farmers, the settlement of city dwellers onto communal farms for retraining, and the sponsorship of organised camps for migrant labourers. The Resettlement Administration was formed in 1935 and absorbed into the Department of Agriculture in 1937. In so doing it was accorded the status of a separate agency and renamed the Farm Security Administration.

The head of the new agency was Rexford G Tugwell, then under-secretary of Agriculture. Tugwell had been a professor of economics at Columbia University in New York city and, on assuming his new position in the FSA, called on a former student, Roy Emerson Stryker, then assistant professor of economics at Columbia, to assist him in forming the agency's Historical Section. Its main purpose was to direct and supervise investigators, researchers, sociologists and statisticians in their accumulation and compilation of reports, surveys, maps, etc. Stryker placed the emphasis on photographic documentation, which he felt to be far superior to other forms of historical record.

Tugwell's choice of Stryker to lead the Historical Section and establish its policy created one of the most enduring photographic records in US history. Between 1935 and 1943, more than 270,000 photographs were taken, indexed and catalogued for the FSA. In 1942, the Historical Section was transferred to the Office of War Information. At a later date, over three-quarters of these images were transferred to the Library of Congress where 70,000 are on file.


Oppression borne with dignity: the work of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

DOROTHEA LANGE'S PHOTOGRAPHS for the FSA included extensive coverage of migratory workers and their families: their overloaded and dilapidated vehicles (cars, trucks, lorries) on the highway; living in tents pitched in fields; in transient camps; or working in the fields. They simultaneously embody an accurate documentary record and a moving comment.

Undoubtedly, the most famous and widely published of these is Migrant Mother (1936). Lange's photograph of a mother who is a migratory labourer, huddled in her tent, became the most widely reproduced of all the FSA photographs. It is arguably one of the supreme images of a victim of socio-economic oppression, with indestructible dignity.

Lange was driving her car early one evening after a long day's shooting when her eye caught a sign which read 'Pea Pickers' Camp'. After some deliberation, she turned down the drive and was confronted with a forlorn group of tents. One of these was simply a piece of cloth rigged to the chassis of a car without tyres. Within this meagre enclosure sat a group of dirty children with their exhausted mother. Lange spent less than ten minutes with this pathetic group, in which time she learned that the pea crop had frozen and the family were reduced to living on scavenged vegetables and whatever birds the children could kill. The woman was 32 years old. She had just sold the car's tyres to purchase food.


Migrant Mother personifies Lange's chosen subject matter. It projects that combination of pathos and dignity which is her special individualised trait. Pare Lorenz, the film-maker/writer, commented: "You can usually spot any of the portraits because of the terrible reality of her people... They have the simple dignity of people who have leaned against the wind and worked in the sun". (Dorothea Lange: Camera with a Purpose, published in US Camera, 1941)

The emotional impact of her images was such that John Steinbeck was inspired by Lange's photographs to write The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, his famous novel which gives an epic account of an emigrant farming family fleeing the dust bowl of the Mid-West to reach the 'promised land' of California. The novel contains an appalling indictment of the exploitation and suffering of the migratory workers and actually included scenes, people and places captured by Lange's lens.

Lange took very detailed notes whilst photographing, and registering the historical context in which her images were taken, hence the highly specific cataloguing referred to above. This led in turn to the establishment of a close rapport with her subjects who were the subject of indifference and, frequently, hostility by affluent members of the community who deeply resented the 'intrusion' of impoverished countrymen and women, with their families, into their residential areas.

Lange was dismissed by Stryker in 1939 as a result of the fractious relationship between them. She continued her photographic work to the end of her life. She worked in the Japanese internment camps with Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer, photographing the persecuted victims of American xenophobia following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. She later travelled to Europe, Latin America and Asia, engaged by Life and Look magazines.


Her most memorable achievement, however, is generally considered to be the haunting imagery which she created in the course of her work with the FSA. Her contribution to the genre of documentary photography was summarised by one commentator in the following terms: "Among the quarter of a million pictures taken by the FSA photographers, Dorothea Lange's photographs are distinguished by their emotional charge, by their tangible love of humanity. Dorothea Lange was a woman who gave the lens, a dead machine, unparalleled passion and humanity because she wanted to help alleviate the cruelty of the world". (Daniela Mrazkova, Masters of Photography, Hamlyn, London, 1987)

top     The echoes of social reality: Walker Evans (1903-1975)

WALKER EVANS WAS never as popular as Dorothea Lange, possibly because his work lacked the emotional content of hers. Nevertheless, his work is a vital contributory force in the development of modern documentary photography in so far as he pursued the ideals of truth and beauty within the confines of ordinary reality.

In common with his FSA colleagues (Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee and others) he recorded the oppressed lives of the American rural poor of the 1930s: the desperate migrants forced to leave their dust bowl farms in their dilapidated cars and trucks; people desperately searching for any job; camps teeming with the dispossessed, waiting patiently for their daily relief rations; the sufferings of 15 million white and black unemployed.

His style differed from that of Lange and his other colleagues, however, in so far as it was characterised by a marked lack of pathos or emotional involvement. It is, rather, characterised by what might be termed static tension, which involved the evocation of attractiveness in detachment. Two photographs especially capture Evans's power to encapsulate a phase of society within the compass of a single image.


The first is entitled, Street Scene: Atlanta, Georgia (1936). This image is a powerful embodiment of the juxtaposition of apparently incongruous images. The first image is the notice advertising the film, Love Before Breakfast, starring the well-known film star of the 1930s, Carol Lombard. The second is the row of dingy clapperboard houses which are fronted by the notice. We are presented with the image of the fantasy world projected by Hollywood (a major communicator of the American myth) and, simultaneously, the grim realities of daily life. The alliance of these two conflicting visual metaphors form a unified impression. (This approach forms an important element in the Marxist aesthetic and is termed alienation.) The photograph exemplifies an important aspect of Evans's art: his ability to infuse still-life images with a static tension. In other words, inanimate objects (in this instance, a poster and buildings) graphically depict the pulse of social life.

The second photograph is entitled Easton, Pennsylvania (1935). This presents a powerful symbolic image of the breakdown of the capitalist ethic. Its power depends on an important element in the power of the documentary photograph to encapsulate a phase of society: an awareness of the historical context. The mass production of automobiles (in which Henry Ford was the unquestioned leader, lending the term 'Fordism' to the economic phase of society characterised by mass production founded on assembly line methods) fuelled the avaricious consumerism which underpinned the flourishing economy of the 1920s and which ended throughout the world with such dramatic abruptness in October 1929. In this image we are graphically presented with the tragic anti-climax to that decade, symbolising the destruction of the dream generated by the post first world war prosperity.


top     The power of photography

THE WORK OF Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans illustrates a vital role performed by the documentary photograph: its power to instil a profound awareness of patterns of life and culture independent of, and often distanced from, the viewer who may occupy a totally different (and frequently more privileged) socio-economic strata. In this respect, the documentary photograph, as exemplified by the work of Lange, Evans and their FSA colleagues, fulfils a fundamental educative and reformist role. In this respect, it serves as the public conscience of society.

This form of communication is rooted in history in so far as documentary photography depicts socio-economic conditions anchored in specific points in time (eg depressed America in the 1930s). Nevertheless, this exploitation of photography as the conscience and educator of society remains permanently relevant, irrespective of the historical dimensions in which it is pursued, or by the technology which harnesses it (eg the print media or television).

With the advent of the new millennium that role remains as germane as six decades ago. Dangerously powerful forces - spearheaded by the classical liberalism of neo-liberal economists and neo-conservatives who constitute the ideology of the New Right - seek to blunt and coarsen our compassion and care for the weak and vulnerable which, ultimately, is the index of a civilised society. The power of documentary photography can serve as a powerful antidote to the social Darwinism (the philosophy of the survival of the fittest) which, inherited from Thatcherism, continues to disfigure Blair's government.


More on Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and the other FSA photographers can be found in S Monick, Oppression Borne with Dignity: The Work of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), The Society Photographer, December 1999; and S Monick, Shattering the Myth of the American Dream: Lewis Wickes Hine, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, The Society Photographer, January 2000.

Home | Issue 50 | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page