tv American Artifacts CSPAN September 6, 2015 10:00pm-10:30pm EDT
the worst hit areas in the economy was agriculture. a program began by one of advisers to president franklin roosevelt to document the conditions under which people were living. this is back when we did not have television. we had radio, but a lot of places did not have electricity. so they could not listen to the radio podcast of find out what was going on in other parts of the country. they sent off photographers to take pictures of what was happening and put these pictures into newspapers whenever they
could and into magazines, journals, things like that. it was difficult to get newspapers to accept these photographs, because nobody really wanted to face up to what was happening. but roy striker, an economist from columbia university, was persistent. he was the head of this project. he went to newspaper offices, contacted newspaper people, magazine people, just really pushed and pushed and pushed to get these pictures published and out to the reading public so they could see what was happening. his projects employ photographers who travel to the worst hit areas where they were planning to have government intervention programs. one of the things they did was to relocate people off of land
that was expired, that had been farmed till it was depleted. another project was to move people from urban locations from ghettos into better housing, hoping that they would be healthier and more productive economically. so, photographers went to these various locations to do before and after pictures to show the need for these government projects and the benefits of them once they had been implemented. most photographer worked out of the washington, d.c., office, working directly for roy striker. but dorothea lange was in california. her husband worked for the same agency that roy striker did. she and her husband produced reports of what was happening in california. these written reports with photographs were sent to the washington office, made their
way to striker's office. when he saw these pictures, he took them around to the different offices in the resettlement administration and people were astounded. one of the best-known photographers for the resettlement was ben shawn, who was an already established fine art artist. when he saw them, he said if that is what you want your photographers to produce, i want to come work for you. so he got a detail to go work for roy striker for a while, but these pictures set the tone for how the agency was going to publicize its mission and migrant mother picture is probably the most famous of the ones that dorothea lange produced. she was out in california documenting pea picking in march, 1936.
the crops had frozen. people were not able to pick the damaged goods, so they were living on what little money they had saved. they were living in outdoor camps. she drove by one of these camps and stopped and made some pictures. got back and her car and was partway home and thought, i did not do what i was supposed to do. i did not get "the" picture. so, she turned around, went back. the story that we got from migrant mother's grandson, migrant mother is the name that that picture that's so famous usually goes by. the story was that his grandmother was camped near the edge of the road. her husband and older son had gone to find whatever they need to keep the car going. apparently they had poked a hole in the radiator and needed
something to patch it up to make it to the next farm, next place to pick crops. so florence thompson was back at the camp with the children, no cell phones. how are they going to find each other when the husband and son came walking up the road? so, she was near the edge of the road which was a very dangerous place to be. these migrant laborers were extremely unpopular in california. it was already a picking arrangement for the crops out there. they did not need these dust bowl okies who were coming in from the drought areas of the united states. the farmers did not want these new people coming in. the townspeople did not want them camped on the side of the road, did not want to have to pay for their children to go to school.
they were extremely unpopular. police were hired to clear these people out, make the move on to another part of the state or the county. so, by the edge of the road, florence thompson was in a vulnerable situation. that's who dorothea lange photographed. she saw this woman with several small children, teenage daughter and some younger children, and began working her way up to her. apparently, dorothea lange was very good at engaging people in conversation and then just sort of disappearing into the atmosphere. she talked about herself as becoming invisible as she worked. she would very slowly talk to people about what was happening, what straits they were in, how they fed themselves, that kind of thing, and then they would sort of forget about her, and she would begin making pictures.
that is what she did with florence thompson. there is a series of pictures showing the teenage girl out in front of their tent sitting on a chair. the mother on the younger children behind her. then gradually, she gets closer and closer and makes the famous photograph. she knew the sooner she made it, that that is what she needed to accomplish and went back home. this program that roy striker headed began as part of the resettlement administration, but those words resettlement administration did not sit well with the public. americans have always wanted to have their own property, their own houses, their own piece of ground. and they do not want to be moved. they want to decide what to do for themselves.
so, this resettlement administration was intended to help people who were in dire straits, but it was politically unpopular. they were accused of being socialist, communist, moving people around. that was not part of the american dream. so, they had to change direction. they had to stop moving people around. they needed to change the name of the organization and they went from resettlement, which implies certain things, to farm security administration, which implies the opposite. that you are not going to be moved, you will stay in a secure situation. so, it took off in a new direction. there was more documentation of farms. more documentation of the american way of life, of small town america and less emphasis on changing things around. rex tugwell was sort of a lightning rod.
he was a free thinker. he came up with this resettlement administration program. roosevelt cannot live with the political fallout from it. took him away from the program and had him go do other things. and that's when it became the farm security administration. so, the agenda was slightly different, and different people were put in charge. 1937 when the began being the farm security administration, they were well-established. newspapers, magazines were glad to have their photographs, because they had seen the quality of the work was becoming an established, reliable picture source. the pictures were free. so, they were appealing to newspapers, magazines, book publishers, that kind of thing.
and as a well-established organization, 1939 when kodak introduced color film, they sent film to roy striker to have his photographers try out. kodak was trying to establish a new market, new product, and they wanted people who would know how to use it effectively to try it out and publicize it. the photographers produced over 6000 photographs. you can see when you go online, you can see they were bracketing. they were underexposed in some. overexposing others. not knowing just where that the light meters to get the best picture, but they got quite a lot of really, really affect the pictures. -- affective pictures. beautiful pictures. and some sort of duds. few double exposures, but the film was being developed
elsewhere. they could not see the products that they had produced. so, they were just learning how to use it. the kodachrome slides are kept in an off-site storage location that has the right temperature and humidity condition to make them last as long as possible. we use the digital images exclusively at this point. we had them at as high resolution as technology can produce at this point. we don't bother the originals, because taking them in and out of their conditions will make them deteriorate more quickly, and we want these to last in perpetuity. marian post wolcott was trained as a newspaper photographer assigned to the women's page. she was very confined in what
she could make photographs of. she worked with paul strand and ralph steiner who were art photographers in the late 1930's to she was also self-taught. but they gave her private instruction. they would comment on her work. she even photographed for their frontier films, people of the cumberland. they got to know her and her work fairly well, recommended her to roy striker who set her to work in the most difficult part of the resettlement fsa territory. the southern united states were the most agricultural, the most conservative, and the most racially troubled. marian was the ambassador. she went into almost any situation, people like her.
she could calm people's nerves. she could make photographs that did not upset them, that would still meet the agency's agenda for documenting the need for change. so, she traveled for most of her three years for the farm security administration, she traveled in the south. she was one of the people who was given the color film. she was one of the first two got the color film. see the bracketing in her work. she made photographs of american flags, people celebrating fourth of july, these flag photographs get used heavily. she made photographs of juke joints, which are dance halls. out in the sticks, usually. very simple music, no application, just people playing
as they would in their own homes. but dancing went on there. she made photographs of a lot of former plantations where there were tenant farmers working for plantation owners. and she could relate well to both of them. some of her more interesting picture show kids out fishing in the bayou. people lounging around waiting for work in florida, picking crops there, having to wait until the crop is ready or if the crop is spoiled, waiting around for the next crop to come to fruition. so her picture show a way of life that sometimes is considered to have dennis, but occasionally someone -- to have vanished, some people will say that if you go to that same location you will see that life is very much the same. when flickr started putting images online, the library was approached to see if there was
any way we could use flickr to disseminate our photographs. we thought about it for a while and realized it was a way we could get better information about the pictures. that it was not just a one-way street of the library giving information out, but also a way of capturing. what people knew about these places so, we had many of these pictures we had fairly minimal captions, just the name of a town and when the pictures when online, people would write and saying, that is such and such an intersection and the building
behind that street sign is such and such a business. my family owned it. we went there for dinner every friday night. that kind of thing. we got a lot of information from people. which we would never have had the time to go out and find for ourselves. so it has been a very good, cooperative arrangement. marian post wolcott had a larger area to cover than the other photographers in that there were more resettlement projects, there were more farm security projects. it was a much tenser area that she had to cover. striker was pulling her out of one job, sending her off to the other. for the whole time she worked for him, except when she went to eastern kentucky. she broke loose, met people who introduced her to the superintendent of schools who took her up creek beds to show her where the children lived who went to schools in that area.
she had entrees to people in small towns. in this town she is photographing jackie street. they had mule trading day. it was usually the first monday of each month. people would bring in their animals that they wanted to trade, either sell them or trade them for other animals, but they had a very old tradition back to the market days in england, from medieval times. this is one of the few opportunities she took to break loose. she wanted to come back and document more, but the opportunity never arose.
so, it's good she got to do as extensive a coverage as she did. russell lee was an engineer before he came to the farm security administration. he operated the factory. he became an artist. his first wife was an artist. and he decided, he thought that would be more interesting way of life then continuing to operate factories. so he went to an art colony with her. they gradually corrupted apart. he stayed with his art. but he was not all that good at it. he realized he was a much better photographer that he was an artist. he began making pictures. he approached roy striker about doing a project of a trial to see how it went. and became the son roy striker never had. striker began as an engineering student but gave it up because of poor eyesight, because he could not pay his school fees and him went off to world war i. came back a different person
with a broader outlook, but he respected the engineering mindset. he saw that in the way russell lee went about making pictures. lee did processes, beginning, middle and end. if he got interrupted in that sequence, he made the little detour, shows what had happened, and went back to the process. so in his pictures, you have assigned where he inches down. if there is a sideshow, if there is something interesting that was not in his agenda, he covers it, but when he leaves town , he remembers to take the picture ofleaving whatever the town name is. he is very thorough and methodical. russell lee's most famous pictures are of pie town, new mexico. he went there because he thought
it was an intriguing name. when he got there, he found people who had -- left their farms and not able to take up other farms. they had usually lost their releases or haven't been able to maintain payments on their farms when banks broke because of the great depression. many of them ended up in new mexico in this little squatters community. pie town. they were usually from texas, oklahoma, the southern states. as was russell lee himself. he felt very very comfortable with them. collecting their stories, making pictures of their lifestyles. they lived in ways that were very similar to early pioneers in this country. they built houses using
materials at hand. many of them dug holes in the ground and had dug outs. there was very little lumber, so they used that for roofing, but the house itself was med wall -- mud walls. they lived a very colorful lifestyle. they made their clothes out of sea sacks. they worked the land. they lived a very hand to mouth subsistence existence and it was a lot of appeal in documenting that because, at the time, most people in this country were descended from people who had arrived as farmers and taken up land gradually farther west. so it was a story people could relate to readily. russell lee from his experience as a painter would get photographs that were just little gems. this particular house, a plain
house, but the people who lived there had done what they can to make it beautiful. the textures of the sidewalk. the different brush strokes in the stucco are there to be seen. plain woodwork, but they'v painted red in places to make it pop out. there are lace curtains at the door, plant in the door. it just is very inviting, and very humble. you can see edge notching at the top of the picture. it is part of the film, part of a sheet of film. and you can read eastman kodak across the top. those words and that edging would not appear in the print, but it's there to show the whole picture is on the screen. john vachon came to the resettlement administration as a
clerk-delivery boy. he had been in graduate school at catholic university, but got kicked out for bad behavior. he was studying to be a poet. but when he started working with the pictures in the files, putting them back in the file cabinets after people had done research, he began to see there was poetry in visual images. took up a camera. some of the photographers would work with him, when they came in from the field and give him a few pointers here or there. but he was largely a self taught photographer. he became quite the lyricist. he made pictures that were just beautiful to look at. he was not very steady. he didn't want to keep track of where he went, what he did.
he was known to go off and leave his rented car and take the train back to washington. so, he was quite difficult for roy striker to live with, but everybody loved the pictures he produced. he traveled around the united states. wrote wonderful letters back home, describing what he had seen. wrote very few of them to roy striker. so, he was not very well known to photography until relatively recently when his family gave the letters to the library of congress. and now you can match his letters to his wife and his mother with the pictures he made. but wherever he went, he had a sense of humor. he would make pictures of cigarette butts because he thought it was funny. he would make pictures of hotels with funny signs.
but many of his images are just pure poetry to be eyes. this is one of john vachon's pictures from texas when he was sent to document preparations for world war ii. this picture, 1943 or so. and these boys looked so serious. i keep thinking, did they have to go fight in the war? did they not? the other pictures made in this series show war bond posters, show children looking at globes and maps, trying to figure out where these countries are that are suddenly in the news. the seriousness of these boys and the strength of character that i read in their faces makes me think they would have been good soldiers.
probably everyone has encountered the inoculation situation. everybody hates it. this little girl looks like she is beginning to tense up, that this doctor is preparing to give her her shot. one of the ways that the united states tried to get out of the great depression was to create jobs for people. they did a lot of major construction projects. dam building to provide electricity to remote parts of the country. this one is a huge dam, employed lots and lots of people. these dams for the most part are still in use, but now we're seeing the flip side of building these dams.
they have diverted water from some groups, who relied on the water to other people who now rely on the water, and this has been an issue throughout u.s. history, but you will see many of the workers have no protection from the chemicals and the dust and when they were doing very dirty work. we did not know it at the time but a lot of health problems arose because of these working conditions. we now have, make efforts to keep people safe while working in similar situations, but this was the beginning of the major industrial push in the united states. we went from being probably 2/3 agricultural and before the world war ii to 2/3 industrial and urban after that period. so it was a time of major
change. i hope that people will find out the color photographs are just part of a larger view of the country at that time. i hope they will go to our website. there they can see the 14 million pictures, references, discussions of the pictures that are digitized images. we have 1 million online, and we have discussions of the others. so, many of those are in the public domain at a high enough resolution they can be downloaded and used for reproduction in books. >> this program is the first of a two-part look at the farm security administration and office of war information color photographs. during the great depression and world war ii, photographers working for the u.s. government were signed to travel the united states and document living and in