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tv   American Artifacts  CSPAN  September 12, 2015 10:00am-10:30am EDT

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in then every day valley, we run a popular dinosaur dig program, where we take the general public out to try for themselves. having a museum here keeps fossil discoveries in the area and reinforces us as a cry to residents. >> find out where c-span's is going next online at you're watching american history tv on c-span3. in 1939, eastman kodak gave newly released kodachrome to the u.s. government. c-span visited the library of congress to meet beverly brannan and learn more about photography
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in world war ii. beverly: in the 1930's, the united states experienced an economic depression and a great drought. people could not make a living on their farms. they began moving other places, looking for new land to live on. people were in dire straits. one of the worst hit areas in the economy was agriculture. a program began under rexford tugwell, one of the advisors to president franklin roosevelt, to document the conditions under which people were living. we did not have television. we had radio, but a lot of places did not have electricity, so they could not listen to what was going on in different parts of the country.
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they sent photographers to take pictures of what was happening and put the pictures into newspapers whenever they could. into magazines, trade journals, things like that. it was difficult to get newspapers to accept the photographs. no one wanted to face up to what was happening. roy stryker, an economist from columbia university, was really persistent. he was the head of the project. he went to newspaper offices, contacted magazine people, pushed and pushed to get the pictures published and out to the public so they could see what was happening. his project employed photographers, who travel to the worst hit areas, where they were planning to have government intervention programs.
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one of the things they did was to relocate people off of land that was expired, that had been farmed until it was depleted. another project was to move people from urban locations, ghettos, into better housing. hoping they would be more productive economically. photographers went to various locations to do some before and after pictures to show a need for government projects and the benefits of them once they had been implemented. most of the photographers worked out of the washington dc office, working directly for roy stryker. dorothea lang lived in california. her husband worked at the same agency as stryker.
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written reports and photographs were sent back from the washington office to roy stryker's office. when he saw the pictures, he took them to different offices in the resettlement administration, and people were astounded. one of the best-known photographers was ben sean, an established fine artist. when he saw them, he said if that is what you want your photographers to produce, i want to come work for you. he got a detail to work for roy stryker for a while. these pictures set the tone for how the agency would publicize its mission. the migrant mother picture is probably the most famous of the ones dorothea lang produced.
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she was documenting pea picking in 1936. the weather was bad, the crops were frozen. people were not able to pick damaged goods, so they were living on what little money they had saved in outdoor camps. she dropped by one of these camps and stopped, made some pictures, got back in her car, and was partway home and thought, i did not do what i was supposed to do. i did not say what need to be said. she turned around and went back. the story that we got from migrant mother's grandson, "migrant mother" is that in that picture usually goes by. the story is his grandmother, florence thompson, was camped by the edge of the road.
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her husband and son had gone to find whatever they needed to keep the car going. apparently they had hoped table radiator. hole in the florence thompson was at the camp with the children. no cell phones, no way to communicate. how are they going to find each other? the husband and son came walking up the road. she was at the edge of the road, which was a dangerous place to be. migrant laborers were extremely unpopular in california. there was a picking arrangement for the crops out there. they did not need these dustbowl okies from drought areas of the united states. farmers did not want the new people. townspeople did not want them
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camped in their towns, to pay for the children to go to school. they were extremely unpopular. police were hired to clear these people out, make them move on to other parts of the state or the county. by the edge of the road, florence thompson was a vulnerable situation. that is who dorothea lang photographed. she saw this woman with several children and began working up to her. dorothea lang was good at engaging people in conversation and disappearing into the atmosphere. she has talked about herself as becoming invisible when she worked. she would slowly talk to the people about what was happening,
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what straits they found themselves in. they would sort of forget about her, and she would start making pictures. that is what she did with florence thompson. there is a series of pictures with the mother and young children behind her. gradually, she gets closer and makes the famous photograph. she said she knew when she made it that was what she needed to accomplish and went back home. this program that roy stryker headed began as part of the resettlement administration.
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those words, "resettlement administration," did not sit well with the american public. they have wanted to have their own houses, their own piece of ground, and they did not want to have to move and decide what they were going to do for themselves. the resettlement administration was intended to help people in dire straits. but it was politically unpopular. they were accused of being socialists, communists, moving people around. that was not part of the american dream. they had to change direction, stop moving people around, have to change the name of the organization. they went from "resettlement," which implies certain things, to "farm security administration," which implies the opposite. you will not be moved. you will stay in a situation. it took off in a new direction. there was more documentation of
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farms, of the american way of life. of small-town america. less emphasis on changing things around. rex tugwell was sort of a lightning rod. he was a freethinker. he came up with the resettlement administration program. roosevelt could not live with the political fallout from it. took him away from the program and had him do other things. that is when it became farm security administration. the agenda was slightly different. different people were put in charge. 1937 or so, when they began being the farm security administration, they were well-established. newspapers and magazines were glad to have their photographs. they had seen the quality of the work. it was becoming an established,
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reliable picture source. the pictures were free, so they were appealing to magazines, publishing agencies, that sort of thing. and as a well-established organization in 1939, when kodak introduced color film, they sent film to roy stryker to have his photographers try it out, see what they do. kodak was trying to establish a new product. they wanted people who would know how to use it effectively to try it out and publicize it. photographers produced over 1600 photographs. you can see when you go online, you can see they were bracketing. they were under exposing some, overexposing others, not knowing where to set the light meters to get the best pictures. but they got a lot of really effective pictures, really beautiful pictures, and some
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sort of duds. a few double exposures. but the film was being developed elsewhere. they could not see the product they had produced. so, they were just learning how to use it. the kodachrome slides are kept in an off-site location that has the right temperature and humidity conditions to make them last as long as possible. we use the digital images exclusively at this point. we have them at as high resolution as technology can produce. we do not bother the originals because taking them in and out of their needed conditions will make them deteriorate quickly. we want these to last in perpetuity.
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mary post-walcott was a newspaper photographer assigned to the women's page. confined in what she could make photographs of. she worked with paul strand and ralph steiner, photographers in the late 1930's. she was self-taught. but they gave her private instruction, comment on her work. she even photographed for frontier films. people of the cumberland. they got to know her, recommended her to roy stryker, who hired her and sent her to work in the most difficult part of the resettlement territory. the southern united states were the most agricultural, the most
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conservative, and the most racially troubled. marion was the ambassador. she could go into almost any situation. people liked her. she could calm people's mirrors, nerves, make photographs that were not upset them, that would meet the agency's agenda for documenting the need for change. during her years for the farm security administration, she traveled in the south. she was given the color film, one of the first who got color film. you can especially 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
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joints, which are dance halls out in the sticks, usually. very simple music, no amplification. people playing as they would in their homes, but dancing went on there. she made photographs of plantations, former plantations, where there were tenant farmers working for plantation owners. she could relate well to them. some of her more interesting pictures show little kids fishing in the bayou. people lounging around, waiting for work in florida, picking crops, having to wait until the crop was ready. if the crop was spoilt, waiting around for the next crop to come to fruition. her pictures show a way of life that is sometimes considered to
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have vanished. occasionally, someone on flickr will say, if you go to the same location, life is the same as it was. flickr started putting images online. the library was approached to see if there was a way we could use flickr to disseminate photographs. we thought about it for a while and realized it was a way to get better information about the pictures. it was not just a one-way street of the library giving pictures out, but capturing what people knew about these places. many of these pictures, we had minimal captions. the name of a town. when the pictures went online, people would write in and say, this is such such intersection.
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the building behind the street such business.d we went there for dinner friday night. that kind of thing. we got information from people we would never have had the time to find for ourselves. so it has been a very cooperative arrangement. marion post walcott had a larger area to cover. there were more farm security administration projects. it was a very intense area she had to cover. stryker was sending her from one job to another for the entire time she worked for him except when she went to eastern kentucky. she broke loose, met people who
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introduced her to the superintendent of schools, took her up to creek beds to introduce her to children in the area. she had entrees to people in small towns. in this town, she is photographing jockey street. they had mule trading day on the first monday of every month. people would bring in their animals they wanted to trade, sell them for cash or other animals. it 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 was good that she got to do as extensive coverage as she
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did. russell lee was an engineer before he came to the farm security administration. he operated a factory. he became an artist. his first wife was an artist. and he thought that would be more interesting way of life than continuing to operate factories. so he went to an art colony with her. they gradually drifted apart. he stayed with his art but was not that good at it. he realized he was a better photographer than an artist. he approached roy stryker to see about doing a trial and became the son roy never had. stryker himself began as an
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engineering student but gave it up because he could not pay his school fees. he came back with a broader outlook. he respected the engineering mindset. he saw in the way russell lee went about making pictures, he did processes. he did beginning, middle, and end. if he was interrupted in the sequence, he made the detour, showed what had happened, and went back to his process. in his pictures, he enters town, makes his pictures in town. if there is a sideshow, something interesting that was not in his initial agenda, he covers it. when he leaves town, he remembers to take a picture of leaving whatever the town name
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is. he is very thorough and methodical in what he does. russell lee's most famous pictures are of pie town, new mexico. he went because he thought it was an intriguing name. he found people who had left their farms, not been able to take up other farms. they usually had lost their leases. had not been able to maintain payments on their farms. went broke because of the great depression. many of them ended up in new mexico in a little squatter's community. they were usually from texas, oklahoma, the southern state, as was russell lee himself. he felt comfortable collecting their stories, making pictures of their lifestyles.
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they lived in ways that were very similar to the early pioneers in this country. they built houses using materials at hand. many of them dug holes in the ground and had dugouts. er, sowas very little lumb the houses themselves were mud walls. they live a colorful lifestyle. they make clothing out of feed sacks, which were bright colors. they lived a hand to mouth-subsistence existence. there was a lot of appeal to documenting this. at the time, most people in this country were descended from people who had arrived as farmers and taken up land farther west, so it was a story people could relate to readily. russell lee, from his experience
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as a painter, would get photographs that were little gems. this particular house is a very plain house, but the people who live there have done what they can to make it beautiful. the textures of the sidewalk. different brushstrokes in the stucco are there to be seen. very plain woodwork, but they have painted red in places to make it pop out. a plant in the window. very inviting, very appealing, very humble. you can see edge notching at the top of the picture. it is not a defect. it is part of a sheet of film. you can read "eastman kodak" across the top of the film. those words would not appear in print when it was made, but it
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is there to show the picture is on the screen. john vashon came to the resettlement administration as a clerk delivery boy. he had been at school at catholic university but had been kicked out because of bad behavior. he was studying to be a poet. when he started working with the pictures and the files, putting them back in cabinets after people have done research, he began to see there was poetry in visual images. took up a camera. some of the photographers would work with him coming in from the field, giving him a few pointers, but he was a largely self-taught photographer. he became quite a lyricist.
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he made pictures that were just beautiful to look at. he was not very steady. he did not want to keep track of where he went, what he did. he was known to leave his rented car someplace and take the train back to washington. he was difficult for roy stryker to live with, but everyone loved the pictures he produced. he traveled around the united states, wrote wonderful letters back home. wrote very few to roy stryker. he was not very well known to historians of photography until very recently, when his family gave the letters to the library of congress. you can now match his life with the pictures that he made. but wherever he went, he had a
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sense of humor, taking pictures of cigarette butts in the streets because he thought it was funny. he would take pictures of hotels with funny signs in front of them. but many of his images are pure poetry. this is a picture from texas, when he was sent to document preparations from world war ii. this picture is from 1943 or so. these boys look so serious. i keep thinking, did they have to go fight in the war? did they not? the other pictures in this series show war bond posters, showed children looking at globes and maps to figure out where the countries are that are suddenly in the news. the seriousness of these boys
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and sort of the strength of character that i read in their faces makes me think they would have been good soldiers. i think, probably, everyone has encountered the inoculation situation, and this little girl is beginning to tense up as the doctor gives her her shot. one of the ways the united states got out of the great depression is to create jobs, a lot of major construction projects, dambuilding to provide electricity to parts of the country. this one is a huge dam that employed lots of people. these dams are still in use, but we are seeing the flip side --
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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. you will see many of the workers have no protection from the chemicals and the dust that was in the environment where they were doing very dirty work. we did not know it at the time, but a lot of health problems arose because of the working conditions. we now 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 2/3 agricultural before world war ii to 2/3 industrial after that
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period. it was a time of major change. i hope people will find out that the photographs are part of a larger view of the country at the time. on our website, they will see 14 million pictures of images, descriptions of images. we have descriptions online of the others. many are in the public domain at high enough resolution to be downloaded to be used for reproduction in books. >> this program is the first of t look at the farm security administration and color photographs.


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