Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Show Your Cards; Throw Your Doubt Upon The Table (A Small Epilogue)


Jim Norris and wife


We look up.

Somehow, we chose a path.

No, history chose a path for us, down a road that includes three photographers: a woman of chipped flint and fine ethics (Dorothea Lange); a man whose mysteries remained mysteries (Walker Evans); and a gentleman of many talents and bright philosophies (Gordon Parks).

You and I look down the road, forward and then back, contemplating these characters. We’ve gone so far from where we began.

As we walk and talk, there are questions to be considered. What happened to Roy Stryker? How did the FSA become the OWI (Office of War Information) at the start of WWII?

What about the European photographers? Their story takes a different path than the Americans of the same era.

And how about the folks in Mexico in the 1930s? Such a spectacular display of light and flash and talent in a short period of time!

Then, there’s the big one— Edward Steichen, and The Family of Man, a story that draws so many unlikely threads together into a solid, smart knot.

While I have been so focused on the road in front of us, the photographers, the dust devils, the little eddies of tricky research— my own story has been unfolding.

I have started to write a book. And I didn’t know it. What you see here is the first shaping of parts of what will become a manuscript about the modern history of photography.

Who knew? Did you?

There are many possible paths ahead of us, and many choices to be made.

Some of these choices you and I will make together; some will be dictated by the winding direction history takes. Some choices will blow in like leaves on a thrashing wind, and we’ll be blown along with them.

The Family of Man is the turning point; the change of the game; the flip of the wrist where all the ideas are laid out upon the table. Should we go there next?

This how all books begin— with questions. Books end not when we find the answers, but when we find the middle place between the question and the answer. That is where I’m headed.

Would you like to join me on this journey?

A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH AT THE TOP: The photographer of this piece is Russell Lee, who worked for the FSA.











[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]


Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Where the Eye and Heart Meet— Gordon Parks (Part 4)

USDA HIstorical Photos;  Gordon Parks; made available by Wikimedia Commons

    You are up against odds. I bought my first camera in Seattle, Washington. Only paid about seven dollars and fifty cents for it. And I fell in Puget Sound the first day out. I was trying to shoot seagulls.[i]  Gordon Parks


It is August 1942.  Gordon Parks has been in Washington D.C. for less than a month.

He hasn’t taken a single picture.

Today he will.  He is in the hallway with a woman by the name of Emma Watson[ii].  She’s a cleaning lady.

In the last month[iii], Parks’s boss, Roy Stryker, sent him out to run three personal errands that would help the new photographer become acquainted with the city.  He told Parks to go to the movies, to check out a local restaurant, and to buy a winter coat.  Stryker made him leave his camera in the office.

Parks didn’t ask why.  He left the building with Strykers’s instructions in his head— the movie theater, the restaurant, the department store for a winter coat.

Parks went to the movie theater.  This theater isn’t for Negros, said the usher at the ticket window.

Parks went to the restaurant.  We don’t serve N——, said the host at the restaurant.

Parks went to the department store.  You can’t buy a coat here, said the salesman in the Men’s Department.

Gordon Parks went roaring back into the office.  I want my camera, he said to Stryker.  I’m going to go out and—

—shoot what?  Asked Stryker.   Now you see.   Now you tell me what you see.  Sit down and write a proposal.

It took him weeks to hone down his proposal.  Weeks to get past the blind anger of being refused at the door of the simplest places.  Parks finally had an answer.  Emma Watson.

Watson cleans the room of a woman’s office who is a notary public, a woman who has the same education level as Watson does.

Watson stares at Parks.  Parks stares at Watson.

And history stares at them both.


    And so in 1939 I think, as I tell it now, I’m sure that it is true I first became interested in photography when I saw pictures of the bombing of the “Panay” which was a U.S. gunboat and I was in Chicago on a layover and a chap named Norman Allay (?) who shot the picture—  Gordon Parks


Like many of the FSA photographers, Parks is an anomaly.  What makes him unusual is that he the anomaly of an anomalous situation.

Whereas most of the FSA photographers came from places where they had to make their own road, young, as photographers and artists before coming to the FSA, Parks picked up his first camera at 25.

Whereas many of the photographers had to fight the good fight because they were women, or because they came from working class circumstances, or because they were the sons of immigrants—  Parks was African-American.

Parks didn’t have to do anything to fight the good fight.  All he had to do was walk down the street of Washington D.C. looking for a place to have lunch to find himself in the middle of a social crisis. [iv]

FSA-OWI  Official Photographer Gordon Parks; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    —And I just plain thought it was exciting the way [Jack Delano] captured these pictures and suddenly this new medium seemed like a possibility to me and I had been looking for all sorts of means whereby I might be able to express myself. Gordon Parks


What worked in Parks’s favor is that he made his own luck.   The first day that he went out to shoot photographs for the first time, he was so intent on shooting the seagulls, he fell in the Puget Sound, yet managed to salvage some of his film.

Shortly thereafter, he decided he wanted to shoot fashion, so he walked into the nicest clothing store in Minneapolis/St. Paul and asked the owners if he could do some fashion photographs for them.

Mr. Murphey the man who owned the store said, No.  We get all of our photographs done out of New York.  What makes you think you can shoot fashion?

And Mrs. Murphey,  wife of that owner said, What makes you think he can’t?  We’ll have models and clothes ready for you two nights from now. 

Parks shot those photographs with a borrowed Speed Graphic camera.

He double-exposed every single shot but one.

He was crestfallen.   Parks’s first wife told him to print the one picture that worked, and to take it down to Mrs. Murphey, and tell her what happened.

She loved the one shot.  She wanted to see the others.

Parks made his own luck by determination alone, and much like many other people who belong in history because they worked their way into history, great forces with kind faces came to his aid.[v]

    …I [don’t think] was any more sensitive than the rest of the photographers on the FSA, but I certainly had other areas of my own personal problems in rejection and discrimination than any of them did, because I was a Negro and Roy I think taught me to use that disadvantage in an intelligent way instead of striking back with violence any longer, and so I put it into the camera.  Gordon Parks


Roy Stryker didn’t know anything about the technical aspects of photography, but he did know how to pick photographers and get them moving in the right direction.  Because Parks was such a green photographer, he started him out in Washington D.C.  Then, he sent him out on the East Coast.  Finally, Parks was sent into areas where the other photographers of the FSA hadn’t gone yet, for one reason or another.

Parks photographed everyone, everywhere during this period of his development.  It was right before the war  (WWII) when the FSA would become the OWI (the Office of War Information).

In Parks’s photographs, people dropped their ordinary faces.  The workers smiled.  The children opened their eyes.  The women gently posed.  Parks’s eye was a kind eye.  He sought out the dignity of the human experience in a very direct and very forward way.  Just by seeking this quality, it emerged, everywhere in front of Parks’s camera.

    So I went to Chicago in 1940, I think, ’41, and the photographs that I made there, aside from fashion, were things that I was trying to express in a social conscious way. I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake. I, you know, thought I had the instinct toward championing the cause. I don’t know where it came from but possibly . . . . Gordon Parks


So, here they are, on a Sunday.  Watson considers Parks.  Parks considers Watson.

They are standing in an anonymous hallway.

The photographer is still angry about his experiences in Washington D.C., but it’s a muted, focused anger.

I thought we could take some pictures in that office you clean, he said.  Let me help you carry your supplies.

She unlocks the door to the office.

Emma Watson looks to Parks for direction. 

They are standing in the woman’s office where she cleans every day.

Parks hands her two of her tools— a mop and a broom.  In a quiet voice, he asks her to stand in front of the American flag.

She does not smile.  He does not smile.

He adjusts his camera and takes a breath.  Emma Watson carries a solemnity with her mop and her broom.  That’s what he wants to capture.  This is Gordon Parks’s America— where people emerge from the background to the fore because they, too, are Americans.


American Gothic.  August 1942.

History rushes out and envelops them both.

FSA photographer; Gordon Parks; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[i] All of the header quotes come from The Oral History Interview of Gordon Parks for the Archives of American Art by the Smithsonian Institute


[ii] Additional information about American Gothic, Gordon Park’s first and most famous shot for the FSA can be found on Wikipedia. Parks thoughts on this portrait from the oral history interview listed above: Roy Stryker said, “My God, this can’t be published, but it’s a start.” So it was published. I sneaked it out and published it in an old paper that used to be in Brooklyn. It was published in Brooklyn, you probably remember, what was it called? I forget, a Marshall Field paper, do you remember that one?


[iii] I’ve taken a few liberties with time, and the quotes aren’t exact.  That’s why everything spoken is in italics versus quotes.  The resources for this story are from the Oral History Interview of Gordon Parks. (See first endnote.), and two of Parks’s many books— Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, and A Hungry Heart. Both books were recommended by Donald Ewers. (See notes and links below in italics.)


[iv] Clip from CBS News interview with Gordon Parks.


[v] That’s an adaptation from a quote attributed to reverend and writer Basil King, which feels especially apt in regards to Gordon Parks.


A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS ESSAY: The top and the bottom photographs are by Parks during and around his early years with the FSA/OWI.

The bottom photograph is the famous first photograph I discuss here in this story, American Gothic. (See the second endnote for a link to additional commentary on this shot.)

The middle photograph is Parks himself during the early 1960s. The photographer’s name is unlisted, but it is an official photograph. All photographs that you find here came from the U.S. Government in conjunction with Wikimedia Commons.

Click on this link to the Wikimedia Commons Gordon Parks page to be taken directly to its site in the archives of the Commons.











[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]


Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: The Mysterious Majesty of Walker Evans (Part 3)

Walker Evans 1937-02

    No. I wasn’t drawn to the world of photography.

    In fact I was against it.

    Walker Evans[i]


It is June 1936.  Hale County, Alabama.

Walker Evans hotfoots down a dirt road that is bent like an old pin.

His partner on this job, writer James Agee, is back at another sharecropper’s house, where he’s interviewing a family.  Agee talks and talks.  And listens and listens.

Evans isn’t talking to anybody.   He’s sweating.   He carries his camera equipment under his long arm.  His stride stirs the dust.  It is such a humid morning the red dust flops back down like an old dog.

There’s no breeze in June, in Hale County, Alabama.

He doesn’t notice.  Evans is ahead of himself already.  There’s a sharecropper’s shack right after the bend, which is where he’s headed.

A young woman is hanging her family’s wash up to dry.  He lifts his arm so she can see him arriving.

She glances at him for a second, then turns back to the wash and the line and a tangled old bed sheet.

He calls out to the woman as he gets closer to the ramshackle dog-run where her family lives.  She puts the wet sheet she was trying to hang on the line back in the half-broken basket.

With a grim smile, Evans notices that the bed sheet in the basket has been patched a dozen times or more with bits and pieces of scrap fabric in every color.

He doesn’t know what exactly it is he’s going to photograph today, but that patched together sheet has alerted him that he has arrived at the right place.

Hello, he says.

The young woman doesn’t answer.

But history knows he’s coming. 

Hello, there, Walker Evans.  We’ve been waiting for you to get here.

Evans isn’t supposed to be here with Agee.  He’s supposed to be working for the FSA right now, but instead here he is helping Agee record history[ii] for Fortune Magazine.  He’s taken a break[iii].  Nobody is taking breaks at the moment.  Except for Evans.

Whatever Walker had to say about this period in his life with the FSA, or his work with Agee for the seminal book of fictionalized reportage and photography, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he’s not saying it.

You can hear this silence in his interviews, what few there are to be had.  And you can hear it when people who knew him are asked talk about him.  They don’t hesitate; what is there is an absence of information.

Walker Evans, himself, is an absence of information.

General store interior Alabama USA

By now, these holes in the narrative shouldn’t be a hidden part of the story, not for you.

Yes, there are records.   These records have facts and dates and names.  Other records have different facts and dates and names. One set of records argues with another.

So, when we talk about modern photography, consider this idea, alone: We are talking about people who spoke in images, not in words.

As a result, you and I find ourselves dissecting a visual poetics of history.

It’s not Walker Evans whose causing a dearth of information— this era of modern photography depended on the photographer to record her/his own story, and photographers, even photographer-writers, didn’t record their own history[iv] about this period.

They were busy stitching together a world coming apart at the seams, one photograph, one story at a time.

When did they have time to sit down and talk about themselves?  You tell me.

If Group f/64 lacked the length of time to throw together a story because they weren’t really together long enough to have much of a story, the stories from members of Roy Stryker’s Division of Information for the FSA  (Farm Securities Administration) vary so fantastically, that piecing together a narrative is about a subtle as a patched together bed sheet.

Evans stands before us today in front of a dog-run shack in Hale, Alabama.

You cannot really see him. He doesn’t want to be seen.

He refuses to be in the frame of this story, or any other story, really.

But, there’s something about Walker Evans that makes his subjects want to look closer at him, at the camera in his hands.

Just look at Allie Mae Burroughs, there, in her cleanest cotton topper.

You don’t get that kind of portrait from a place of distrust.

Walker Evans isn’t a total absence of information— he chose to be an absence of information for us.



[i] The header quote is from the Smithsonian oral history interview with Walker Evans    


[ii] Walker Evans took a three month leave-of-absence to work on James Agee’s project for Fortune Magazine, which was rejected and became a book, instead—  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.


[iii] By “subterfuge” I mean I would ignore bureaucratic orders, administration orders. I wasn’t going to listen to – I wasn’t going to serve anybody in this position except myself. So I just used it to go off freely and do exactly what came before my eye. I remember once somebody wanted one of those stupid building projects photographed. I photographed it but I said this is the last time I’m going to do that; I’m not interested in this; to hell with it, I won’t do it. (That was about as clear as Evans would be about his work with the FSA. When the Smithsonian interviewer asked him directly about his history, he said, “Watch this,” and turned off the tape recorder.)


[iv] This era especially produced some stellar writers, so you’d think they’d be writing about themselves somewhere.  They aren’t like Edward Weston who kept meticulous daybooks where he talked about photography and his personal life on a regular basis, or Dorothea Lange, who wrote tons of letters.  Really what we have most to go on for this history are letters.  When we talk about photographer Gordon Parks next week, expect more words.  Parks was a true renaissance man— he wrote, by golly.


NOTE: The portrait of Walker Evans at the top was shot by Edwin Locke for the FSA. The remaining images were shot by Evans himself. Even the available images from Evans’ period with the FSA are scant now. The two above reflect his standard themes of American life during the Great Depression. The portrait of the Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (aka, Allie Mae Burroughs) was shot when he was on his leave of absence with James Agee. The second image typical of Evans fare— it’s believed he had the best understanding of American culture during the Great Depression of his contemporaries, at least according to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs.











[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]

Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: (Intermission, and a Breath)



There is a problem with history that cannot be fixed.

The problem is that history itself is not a fixed idea.

History moves with us, changes as we change.

Writing cannot pin history into place; photography cannot set history on a sure axis.

Words drip off of the side of the page.

Events unveil beyond the scope of the camera lens.

The simplest things redirect the story of history that we think we know.

When we look at the relationship of The Great Depression to the FSA (Farm Securities Administration) and we start to examine the enigma that is Walker Evans—right there in front of us!—please, remember that history is not a fixed state.

Your photographic eye will blink at the wrong time.

Your writer’s ear will miss a crucial word.

These little, human things can cause you to miss an intersection of people and objects and places, a collective event that will cause the world to turn, and turn again.

History is a problem that can never be fixed.

You know it, and I know it.

It’s the crossroads you’ve got to watch out for.

Things happen in too many directions, at once, at a crossroads.

And here we are standing right in the middle of one.

We take a breath. We engage our senses. We lean into the pull of time.

And we go forward, ready or not, into history.











[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]


Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Dorothea Lange and the Humble Truth (Part 2)


Dorothea Lange, Resettled farm child, New Mexico, 1935


[The first part of this series is located here: Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Objectivity, Photography, and the FSA (Part 1).]  

    I never had any sense in making a career out of it. It was more a sense of personal commitment; in fact I have never had a conscious career. People hand it to me, but I don’t feel that way.[i]. Dorothea Lange


Dorothea Lange stands in her studio that morning in 1933 with a wary eye on the street.

This morning at the window of her studio finds her agitated.

The Great Depression widens and deepens day after day. The newspapers are beginning to sound a note of hysteria.

She takes photographic portraits of the “cream of the trade,” as she likes to put it.

Lange’s job is secure. Nothing else is, though.

Lange sees what is going on around her.

Men, out of work, with the lowered eyes of the defeated.

The silent breadlines.

The dark smell of despair that clings to your skin.

She needs to do something. She has to do something. Now. Today.

She pulls her camera strap around her neck and steps out into the street.

Her eyes sweep upward to the last trails of morning fog clinging to the hills of San Francisco.

She turns in the direction of a neighborhood where she has been told that she should not go.

And she walks there as quickly and as deliberately as she can.

Although Lange was established as a portrait photographer, this exact moment is the first time she will meet her true subject: humanity.

History will hurry her along. History always knows the most direct route to your destination.

    I decided, almost on a certain day, that I was going to be a photographer. I thought at the time that I could earn my living without too much difficulty…. Maybe I was one of those lucky people who know what they want to do without having to make these hard decisions, but I didn’t know any photography.
    Dorothea Lange


That same year, Ansel Adams rejected her from Group f/64![ii]

Her work wasn’t like f/64, he said. Too pictorial, he said. Too fuzzy-wuzzy.

Lange was furious.

Adams regretted this statement much later. By his own admission, he hadn’t seen enough of her work to know what Lange was made of. [iii]

Lange was made of star stuff, of steel springs, of torchlight dreams, and the flint to spark them into life.

    What you were doing was important. You were important. Not in the way in an organizational chart, not that way at all. Which made you feel that you had a responsibility. Not to those people in the office, but in general. Dorothea Lange


The day in 1933 that she walked out of her studio into the street changed the entire direction of her life.

Two years later, these images of Great Depression’s effect on San Francisco will bring her to the attention of one Roy Stryker, the chief of the Division of Information of the FSA (Farm Securities Administration).

Like many of the photographers for the FSA, Lange was an unexpected talent with a strong sense of what needed to be done. Stryker hired her with the knowledge that she was tough as a boot.

Striker and Lange fought, often, by letter about her wanting to stay longer in the field in a specific area or about the logistics of keeping her film from being damaged in humid conditions , but she always said that she felt he had “a hospitable mind.”

In the beginning, the FSA’s Division of Information was a little office and one man who wanted, fiercely, to record the truth of the Great Depression, the hard parts about displaced rural populations, starvation, and squatters’ camps.

How do you record the truth?

It’s harder than you think.

The truth is mutable. The truth is subjective.

Start by hiring photographers that believe that there are truths to be had out there.

Give them a general direction and some money, and set them loose.

Dorothea Lange, Ex-tenant farmer on relief grant in the Imperial Valley, California, 1937


    We found our way in, slid in on the edges. We used our hunches, we lived, and it was hard, hard living. It wasn’t easy, rather rough, not too far away from the people we were working with. Dorothea Lange


In Linda Morris’s monograph at the beginning of Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life[iv], Morris points out Lange shot primarily with a Rolleiflex camera.

Morris explains that Lange held the square format camera near her waist. THe viewfinder of a Rolleiflex is located at the top of the camera.

When Lange took a photograph, she had to bow her head to look into the viewfinder in order to see her subject.

Morris calls this gesture, in Lange’s hands, a “position of humility.”

All those who shot with this style of camera worked in this fashion, but Lange’s general demeanor seems to suggest a true gentleness.

And her gentleness, her posture of humility allowed her subjects to release the tight distance one holds with a stranger. A stranger who is recording the worst parts of your life.

I see you, say the people in Dorothea Lange’s FSA photographs. In another life, you could be me, and I, you. In another life. Not this one, but maybe, the next.

Morris steps farther into this idea several sentences later. She says that Lange’s way of working allowed for these everyday Americans—the folks on the breadline, the sharecroppers, the migrant workers, the children in the Hoovervilles— to show their dignity and pride during times of enormous human sadness.

A sense of human dignity was in short supply everywhere during the Great Depression.

    One of them is my most famed photograph. I made that on the first day I ever went out in an area where people said, “Oh, don’t go there.” It was the first day that I ever made a photograph on the street. I made the old man with the tin cup first, but that was life. Dorothea Lange


She walks down the street on an ordinary morning in 1933.

The White Angel Breadline is forming up, so the men can get a little something to eat.

Lange watches them from a distance at first. The anger and sadness shows itself in the way they stand and wait turned this way and that, disconnected from one another, cut adrift into the hopeless eddies of poverty.

Lange steps forward. So much sadness. She’s amongst the men now, and they are shifting around in that cold hungry morning. She might get jostled.

Lange steps forward again. She bows to her Rolleiflex and peers down into the viewfinder. A man leans against the fence erected around the breadline.

She releases the shutter. Lange steps back from the breadline, leaving the men to their thoughts and their hunger.

It is 1933. Dorothea Lange has just put a face to the experience of The Great Depression. It’s no monolithic structure in the distance. It’s not a theory. Nor is it an economic game.

It’s hunger, early in the morning, and no hope of eating.

It’s a man lost in thought— jobless, homeless, hopeless.

It’s a thin cloth coat that won’t keep out the cold.

It is a migrant mother who cannot feed her children.

Everywhere you look from 1933 onward, Dorothea Lange is there with her camera and her kind eye, ready to offer dignity back to the experience of everyday Americans.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant mother (alternative), Nipomo, California, 1936


[i] All the Dorothea Lange quotes in this essay are from the Oral History Interview with Dorothea Lange, Smithsonian Institution.

[ii] The California Digital Archive maintains a wonderful, and complete, interview with Ansel Adams. Keep in mind that Adams was prone to reverse his opinion on photography history here and there. Most hilarious statement about not inviting Lange into Group f/64 in this interview: “She at the time was so pictorial and so fuzzy-wuzzy it never occurred to us. And I really regretted it later after seeing more of her work.”

[iii] Not that much later, Dorothea Lange would mail her film to Ansel Adams for processing. Often rolls would be destroyed by the humid conditions of certain parts of the South. Those rolls could not be salvaged. He did his best to process her film as quickly as possible, so, in a way, he made it up to her for not including her in Group f/ 64.

[iv] Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life (from p. 22). This collection of photographs and essays was Edited by Elizabeth Partridge, daughter of photographer Imogen Cunningham, protégée of Dorothea Lange. (We talked about Imogene Cunningham in Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Green Succulents and Tina Modotti’s Hips! See how these people start to connect up? Fascinating stuff.)












[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]


Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Objectivity, Photography, and the FSA (Part 1)



[All of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. His blog, While On A Walk, just celebrated its one year anniversary. Happy Anniversary, Donald Ewers!]
Today, you and I stand upon a rock that looks over the years of 1935 to 1944.

The hour is dark. I am scanning the landscape trying to find the best trail through this intense time in the history of photography.

We have a number of rocky outcroppings of theory to cross. There is a stretch of unmapped historical terrain right at the start.

And the truth has no passport here.

We will depend on our wits. We will rely on a pieced-together timeline made of small things— letters passed from one side of the country to the other; official memos in the public file; interviews dependent on memory and personality; and the photographs themselves.

In short, we will enter a history within a history.
First, we should get our bearings.

Stand here on this outcropping to get the best view.

The Great Depression rages below you— see the hundred thousand campfires guttering below?

That’s hope threatening to blink out.

But wait— the photographers are coming— with their hearts and eyes to stoke hope into the minds of a population.

These photographers are different. Firstly, they are multifaceted. The ranks of this cadre include photographer-writers, photographer-artists, photographer-filmmakers and others so chockablock with talent you will they they are nearly imaginary.

Secondly, these photographers are even leaner and hungrier than their predecessors and contemporaries of the Stieglitz years and Group f/64[i].

They have to be. The Great Depression demands a great talent. A great hunger.

On Highway 84, Outskirts of Eloy, Pinal County, Arizona. Highway Signs Reading "Cotton Pickers Wanted”

Three of these photographers will become extraordinarily famous by the mid-point of the 20th Century.

They are the ones we remember— the three whose endings were more dramatic than their beginnings with the humble but ambitious Farm Security Administration (FSA)[ii].

Standing in front of this collection of photographers is the singular Roy Stryker[iii] — he is the head of the Information Division of the FSA, whose job is to “introduce America to Americans.” His real job is to make the FSA look useful and functional.

His legacy is something altogether different.

Stryker helped to invent the next wave of documentary photography— the most recognized form of photography in the history of the medium itself.
What may surprise you is that Stryker knew nothing about photography as a technical construct.

He negotiated with his photographers about the location of their assignments. He offered general directives and ready money and access to contacts.

He made sure that the photographs taken for the FSA were available to all media outlets.

With this methodology, Stryker created a new form of visual literacy by placing beautifully photographed images of people in ordinary circumstances in front of the public constantly and thoroughly.

Stryker gave us documentary photography at its finest.

We must watch where we step when we talk about documentary photography, especially of this era— because what we’re really talking about is an individual’s notion of history as it is unfolding in front of the lens.

So much history happens in this short period, and all of it is hard on the heart.
The problem is objectivity.

Objectivity in photography is the idea that one can divorce oneself from history, from training, from upbringing, from bias, from gender, from the limitations of the photographic medium itself as well as the nature of the human eye.

The eye sees what it sees.

A world exists outside of the frame of a camera. What is not photographed is as important as what is photographed.

It’s a tricky thing:

Objectivity is an idealist’s form of history.
It’s time.

We must hike down into 1935 where Roy Stryker is attempting to save farmers and farming culture by grabbing up the best photographers he can find and throwing them out in the field for months at a time.

And we will begin with the most contentious one— Dorothea Lange. The one who got rough with Stryker in telegraphs across the continent.

Behind us is Group f/64, now splintering prettily to be flung to the winds.

Aha! See that?

First light breaks. It will be morning again, soon.
We stand in the space between darknesses.

In this thin thread of light, Dorothea Lange enters our view.

Her way of seeing the world will loom large over this landscape.

Prepare yourself.

The truth is not a valid passport here.

It’s just you and me telling stories in the dark.

Like any history, anywhere.

Toward Los Angeles, California (LOC)


[i] If you haven’t read the first part of this ongoing series, boy do I have a story to tell YOU. Go here, then here, and finally here.


[ii] The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was first known as the Rural Authority (RA). The RA/FSA was created to help consolidate farms into collectives in order to slow down the rate of production, the overuse of land, and to intentionally drive up inflation on produce and livestock in order to stabilize the economy. Trust me, there’s a whole lot more going on here, but this is what will fit into an endnote.


[iii] Roy Stryker is a character. If he wasn’t an actual human being, you’d think that someone made him up. If Alfred Stieglitz had his crotchets, Stryker was a straight up crank. But, like Stieglitz, he was a crank with a heart. All of the photographers fought with Stryker at one time or another.

All of the photographs in this story are by Dorothea Lange.
NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST— Dorothea Lange and Roy Stryker DUKE it out over SOCIAL politics! Photographers who wear DRESSES out in the FIELD! WHY did Lange photograph so many FEET? Did you KNOW that FILM will go FUNKY in the humid American SOUTH? All this and MUCH MUCH MORE— NEXT SUNDAY on OUR SUNDAY BEST!









*BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography

As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.