Thursday, July 26, 2012

The FSA File

The FSA/OWI photo archive is online. This is one of the more important photographic artifacts in the world. It holds the raw material of what was to a large extent one man's vision of several narratives regarding the USA, in the late 1930s and 1940s. It belongs to citizens of the USA, it is large (about 165,000 images), it is diverse, it is lightly edited, and it contains a large number of superb images.

You can find it here.

The Resettlement Agency (RA) was more or less the brainchild of its director, Rexford Tugwell, an economist from Columbia University and an adviser to the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s. The RA's role, in broad strokes, was to help farmers in difficulty. The original conception of the photographic unit of the RA was to document the plight of those farmers, as well as the results of the aid rendered. Roy Stryker, who had worked with Tugwell at Columbia, was brought in to lead the unit of photographers. He continued to do so as the unit went through several agency changes, first to the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and then to the Office of War Information (OWI), employing various photographers along the way including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Stryker and his unit, despite the widely varied agency missions, were driven by the same ideas of documentary photography throughout.

Stryker seems to have been a propagandist at heart. While working for Tugwell at Columbia, he had responsibility for selecting illustrations for a book. He re-tasked existing images, supplying them with new captions, ignoring the original context. The images still served, in the sense of illustrating well (we assume), and there was arguably a truth to this work. However, the "truth" of the image, if any, in the new context was not the truth of the context in which the photograph was taken.

This approach informs the archive throughout. Any photograph was surely taken in a real place, with a real context. There is an underlying truth, there. Nonetheless, a photograph ultimately stands alone, it is fundamentally removed in time and space from that original context. It could as well illustrate something else. A photograph of a factory owner in working clothes, demonstrating usage of a machine, could as well illustrate as essay on the plight of the worker. And why shouldn't it?

Stryker seems to have always had a narrative in mind when directing his photographers, and often provided them with written shooting scripts, instructions for how best to serve the narrative he had in mind. Initially the narrative was of hard-pressed farmers in drought conditions, being helped out by Generous New Deal programs. Later, he wanted to document an idealized (and arguably completely fictional) notion of small town life in the USA. When his unit was folded in to the Office of War Information (OWI) the unit worked to portray the strength of the USA as it built for war, the clearest case of propaganda work.

So, the archive is propaganda, and must be viewed in that light. One might argue that it was propagandizing an essentially true situation, and that it is irrelevant to consider whether any particular photograph is literally true. The proper answer here is murky. Is the underlying narrative true, that the photographs illustrated? This is another question entirely, and the answer here is also is not clear to me.

So, the archive certainly raises questions, often without clear answers. Regardless, it contains many important and wonderful images both famous and otherwise. Regardless, it should be viewed with suspicion. Regardless, it should be viewed. Regardless, it is important, the images do document something real and important in the history of the USA.

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