Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The documentary photography project initiated by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1935 was an unprecedented experiment in the history of photography, and it remains a monument to a collective effort that will never be equaled-the recording of an entire nation, from the city and town to the farm, from the home to the factory, from work to leisure, from school to church, from the baseball field to the movies. Looking back on this effort now, well more than sixty years later, historians – as well as the purely curious – can appreciate the full scope of the project and see more clearly what was at stake and how it related to the history and tradition of documentary photography.

The camera has, from the beginning, recorded the actuality of life, including urban and rural social conditions. Such observations, however, were accidental, picked up by the eye of the camera as it sought to record and memorialize everyday life. The deliberate and programmatic recording of social conditions would wait until the 1880s and 1890s, when Danish-­American journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis (1849-1914) undertook a more systematic exposure of conditions in the tenements and slums of New York City’s Lower East Side. Riis was followed by Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) shortly after the turn of the last century; Hine photographed immigrants at Ellis Island and factory workers in Pittsburgh as well as the lower strata of urban society in Boston and New York. As Alan Trachten­berg has contended, Hine’s work for The Survey, a Progressive magazine, “reflected a new idea in the reform movement,” a shift away from individual pauperism to the more systemic problems, such as child labor, “which required legislative intervention and professional expertise.” Even the magazine’s name – The Survey – suggested this more synoptic approach, confirming leading theoretician (and Erie native) Allan Sekula’s observation that the archive, the effort to construct a complete catalogue or description, became “the dominant institutional basis for photographic meaning” around the turn of the twentieth century.

By the 1920s, though, the leading edge of the Progressive movement had become blunted in the face of growing anti-immi­grant sentiment after World War I and a chauvinistic politics that wanted to exclude foreign elements. Hine, with his liberal attitudes and documentary strategies, was marginalized, while the more self-consciously avant-garde modernist photographers, influenced by the innovative European art movements emanating from Germany and France, created a new space for photography within the art world. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1964) and Paul Strand (1890-1976) were in the ascendant, and the mood of photography, influenced by the strong example of Cubism, was to cultivate form for its own sake. Transforming the everyday objects of the immediate urban environment, Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), Edward Weston (1886-1958), Stieglitz, and Strand constructed an abstract photography that favored the fragment, the close-up, the studious meditation on the thing itself. The modernists were also exalting pho­tography as the art of the moment, of freezing time in ways that provided exciting juxtapositions, elegant formal matches, and the discovery of form in the natural world.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic decline placed everything in a new light. Silent factories, burgeoning unemployment, and breadlines created widespread fear as the Great Depression continued and Ameri­cans began to look for apocalyptic solu­tions. There was no apocalypse, but the election of President Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt in 1932 heralded a gradual restora­tion of confidence in the American system of government. Roosevelt brought with him a host of new faces, new talents, and new ideas, among them the creation of federal agencies that would employ the unemployed – including, to everyone’s surprise, artists, writers, musicians, per­formers, editors, and photographers. The federal government also went into the business of providing information about its own programs, a move designed to promote support for farm subsidies, land conservation, dam control, and a host of other beneficial projects.

Leading the effort was the Farm Security Administration, which saw the great potential that visual portrayals – through photography and film – might possess. At the head of the FSA’ s historical division was the pivotal figure of the 1930s docu­mentary movement, Roy E. Stryker (1893-1975), who had been brought to the agency by Rexford G. Tugwell (1891-1979), Roosevelt’s close advisor. Stryker worked with about a dozen pho­tographers at any given time, assigning them to different regions across the Unit­ed States. These photographers went equipped with background information and “shooting scripts “that gave detailed instructions on what material was needed. The resulting images were made available, free of charge, to news magazines and newspapers, as well as for local exhibitions. The FSA archive of about one hundred and sixty-four thousand black­-and-white images and sixteen hundred color slides may be the greatest collection in photographic history.

The ostensible motive of the Farm Security Administration photographers was to gather images relating to the agri­cultural policies of the government, but in practice, Stryker and his crew quickly developed a much broader concept for their documentary project. They set out to render a sociological portrait of American life, across classes, in urban and rural areas – a portrait guided consciously by the sociological approach of Robert S. Lynd (1892-1970), whose Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929), authored with his wife Helen Merrell Lynd (1886-1982), had been a pioneering ethnography of a “typical” American city, Muncie, Indiana. The FSA’s ambitious aims were captured in an interoffice memo written by John Vachon (1914-1975), who, with Stryker’s encour­agement, was starting out as a photogra­pher while working as the archivist of the FSA files.

The statement that photography is the medium best suited to true documentation can no longer be challenged. Still photography, not cinematic, is the most impersonal and truthful device yet perfected for factual record­ing. It is able to include the widest range of subject matter and employ the least plastic materials of all the arts. In still photography the artist’s material is one simple phenomenon – the splash of light on a sensitized emulsion.

The camera, then, intelligently used, should leave for the future a very living document of our age, of what people of today look like, of what they do and build. It should be a monumental document comparable to the tombs of Egyptian Pharoahs [sic], or to the Greek Temples, but far more accurate.

Such a body of work is the well organized, intelligently selected and edited file of pho­tographs. The most important, perhaps the only important file of this sort is the FSA col­lection in Washington, D.C.

Eschewing in his memorandum any overt political purpose, Vachon argued for a loftier, comprehensive perspective.

“While accepting limits of detail, the doc­umentary file should accept no general limits,” he contended. “It should not por­tray exclusively either the rural scene or the urban scene, lower classes or upper classes. It should be like the philosopher, who without a profound knowledge of all special sciences, yet includes and under­stands them all.”

The enthusiastic Vachon’s memo, exuding confidence and optimism, reflected the excitement and sense of purpose that propelled FSA pho­tographers as they fanned out across the country in search of pictures that would definitively portray America.The young photographers Stryker gathered around him were to revive the dormant tradition of documentary photography that Hine had championed. (The photographers knew Hine’s work, as did Stryker, of course). They had also been schooled, however, in the aesthetics of modernism.

Although they remained adamantly com­mitted to the documentary image, this younger generation of photographers – Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Jack Delano (1914-1997), Ben Shahn (1898-1965) and Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985), Marjory Collins (1912-1985), and Vachon – was stylistically more self­-conscious than the relatively straightfor­ward Riis and Hine. Of this group, only Walker Evans (1903-1975) enjoyed a notable reputation. Evans had begun his career in the late twenties, and his early work – close-ups of commercial signs, fragments of buildings, architectural studies, street snapshots – revealed his mastery of the modernist idiom of abstraction as well as his interest in capturing the flow of urban life. Bringing these resources into his work for Stryker, Evans produced images that possessed an elegance of composition and technical brilliance. He favored architectural images and landscapes, his eye alert for formal resonances – repetitions, contrasts – within the image and for the odd detail of sig­nage or furnishings. He excelled as well in the portrait.

Two of Evans’s best-known works are part of the Pennsylvania FSA archive. Johnstown housing (December 1935) and Bethlehem graveyard and steel mill (Novem­ber 1935), both taken with Evans’s 8 x 10 view camera with a long depth of field, fill the frame up to the edges, with everything in focus, from the fore­ground to the background. The result is a radical foreshortening of the picture plane and the creation of patterns through the juxtaposition of objects in space, objects brought close together in the photograph. The pattern created by the houses in John­stown housing is straightforward enough; in Bethlehem graveyard and steel mill, how­ever, the juxtaposition of the cemetery cross in the foreground and the workers’ housing in the middle ground against the steel mills in the background gives to the scene a compressed symbolic quality, as if to sum up the living and dying of this town within the ruling structure of the steel industry.

Two other well-known images by Evans in the Pennsylvania FSA archive also appeared, in more severely cropped versions, in Evans’s classic American Pho­tographs (1938), Legionnaire and Sons of American Legion, both made in Bethlehem in November 1935. Evans made about a half-dozen images of a parade in Bethle­hem with a 35mm camera, which afford­ed him mobility and speed. The first shot in the series shows the formidable legion­naire as Evans initially saw him – part of a larger group of legionnaires informally clustering around him. Evans must have moved in to get this close-up, provoking the grimace of the sternly patriotic, proudly decorated veteran. The subse­quent frame captures young boys in caps, bored and waiting for some action, trying to look the part of junior legionnaires but so far still in the training stage.

Patriotism and the flag figure as themes in several photographs in this col­lection, especially those taken in 1942 by Marjory Collins. The nation was at war, and home front activity is visible not only in displays of loyalty but also in the work performed by women in jobs that would normally have gone to men – working on the Pennsylvania Railroad, in factories, and at gasoline service stations. Such pic­tures might have come from anywhere in the United States during these late years of the Great Depression, but others in this collection provide a portrait of a specific region and a particular state.

Pennsylvania was anything but a sin­gle unit, as the FSA photographs reveal During the thirties, regional differences were more distinct; since then, they have been blurred to some extent by suburbanization. For one, the farming industry and the family farm were extremely important to Pennsylvania’s overall economy. How deeply Pennsylvania farmers suffered the strain of the Great Depression is clear in photographs of York County farm auc­tions in 1939 made by Marion Post Wol­cott (1910-1990). In some ways, the images of the Amish and Mennonites serve as a counterpoint to the depiction of Pennsylvania more generally, for their perpetually conservative way of life, from dress and custom to religion and technol­ogy, vividly contrasts with the changes in fashion and the vicissitudes of life outside these communities. Even the Amish and Mennonites were not immune to the downturns of the Great Depression, recorded by depictions of farm auctions in 1942 by Jack Collier (1913-1992) and Marjory Collins. Throughout this period, strife and labor conflict also figured in Pennsylvania life, and although such conflicts seldom appear in the FSA archive, they do exist. One example is Vachon’s portrayal of the strikebreakers at the King Farm near Morrisville in 1938.

FSA photographers acutely recorded the Commonwealth’s industrial heritage. The mining regions dominated western Pennsylvania, and the photographs by Shahn, Delano, Collier, and Carl Mydans (born 1907) reveal workers caught up in a massive industrial machine confronted by a determined John L. Lewis (1880-1969), president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960. Meanwhile, Delano’s 1941 photographs of the Bethle­hem and Aliquippa steel mills show an industry gearing up for war production. Pittsburgh, the industrial anchor of west­ern Pennsylvania, is portrayed with its factories lining the riverfront, a city of production. At the eastern end of the state, the tall towers of Philadelphia in photographs by Paul Vanderbilt (1905-1992) represent the city as a bastion of financial power.

Farm Security Administration photographers captured, amid the deprivations, the pleasures that remained for Pennsyl­vanians during the era of the Great Depression, among them fiddling, baseball, dancing, and drinking. Holding it all together, at the center, are the images of family, none more symbolic of the Ameri­can ideal than the 1942 Neffsville Thanks­giving photographed by Marjory Collins.

The documentary photographers framing these images of Pennsylvania were working within a generally understood notion of what documentary photography was – a vision articulated by Stryker and embodied in the practice of the various leading photographers in the group. For images of the rural landscape, the FSA photographers might be governed by pictorial conventions derived from painting, such as a centered composition, framed by natural elements. For images of the modern city and modern industry, they might draw on the more recent aesthetic conventions of Precisionism, with hard edges and geometric lines creating an abstract design within the picture frame. Or – as with Walker Evans – they might create within a more purely photographic aesthetic, taking advantage of the peculiar way things look when they are pho­tographed.

Human subjects dominate the FSA archive, represented by three basic approaches to photographing people: can­did images, in which the action is taken by the photographer with the subject generally unaware of his or her presence (although in a few cases the subject seems suddenly aware of the camera); posed portraits, the most frequent type of image, in which the subject is obviously aware of the camera and is looking at it, composing him or herself under the direction of the photographer; and the posed dramatic image, in which the subject is positioned by the photographer to represent some “typical” action, feeling, or gesture. Documentary photographers were, more often than not, directing the picture in order to achieve the appearance of “truth” or to gain the desired appearance of a general­ized type that the portrait might reveal.

There are so many vital images in this collection of Pennsylvania photography that it is difficult to select just a few for closer examination. Ben Shahn’s 1937 Man gathering good coal from the slag heaps at Nanty Glo offers a visceral sense of the man’s perilous angle. Sheldon Dick’s Sec­ond shift tower at Maple Hill mine as seen from the first tower (1938?) beautifully uses the foreground structure to divide the picture beyond it into geometric segments. John Collier’s Mennonite girls waiting for ‘Deutsch School’ to begin in Mennonite church (1942) is an elegant study of a group of girls in their traditional dress, framed by the strict lines of the corner. Esther Bub­ley’s 1943 studies of a Pittsburgh bus ter­minal capture the posture and attitudes of impatient patience. Jack Delano’s portrait of a tinplate worker in profile with his head turned toward the camera (1941) is a striking composition. And – to close a cat­alogue that might go on and on – Marjory Collins’s curbside sewing machine in Lititz (1942) has an almost surreal presence, framed perfectly within the perspec­tive lines of the sidewalk.

The FSA photographers were, of course, beneficiaries of the Roosevelt administration, and most of them felt in full sympathy with its new definitions of the role of government in the lives of Americans and with its goals of social welfare. To place them in the larger context of social documentary of the time, the photographers were surely to the right of the more deliberately leftist Photo League. Emerging in 1936 out of the Workers’ Film and Photo League, an earlier leftist organization whose purpose was to promote the workers’ struggle, the Photo League was a self-supporting photography school, gallery, and camera dub based in New York City and headed by Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman. Given the generally leftist tenor of the times, the Photo League man­aged to enlist an older generation of photographers, among them Hine, Strand, and Weston, along with younger photog­raphers, including Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, and Walter Rosenblum. Seeking subjects outside of the idealized imagery of “adver­tised America,” the Photo League featured scenes of urban life regularly ignored by the media, such as Aaron Siskind’s study of Harlem. Following a triumphant exhibition in 1948 entitled This Is the Photo League, the organization fell victim to the paranoid political climate of the postwar years, and – in the face of accusations of communist influence – the group disbanded in 1951. Their work would be virtually forgotten until its rediscovery in the 1980s.

But the Photo League was certainly not the only cultural organization to fall before the anticommunist right. To Congressional Republicans, the federal arts programs and the photography project of the FSA were themselves just short of communist; eventually, the Republicans succeeded in shutting down the New Deal and dismantling the various agencies of the Roosevelt era. Stryker, seeing the writing on the wall, made arrangements to have the FSA file, which had become in 1942 the Farm Secu­rity Administration – Office of War Informa­tion (OWI) file, shifted to the Library of Congress for storage and safekeeping. Ironically, the major effort of the FSA-OWI group at that time was to present an idealized vision of America, one that would rally the troops and the home front in support of the war abroad.

Despite its official termination, the FSA effort continued, in a way, into the forties, when Stryker moved his operations to pri­vate industry and began to work for the Standard Oil Company. He managed to pull together a team of photographers, many from the FSA years, who would sustain the documenting of Ameri­ca – enlarging their sphere to incorporate South as well as North America – in order to portray the ramifications of the oil industry on Americans, from production to consumption. In effect, it was another grand opportunity to construct a visual sociology of American life, one paid for by an oil company looking for improved pub­lic relations. Mainstream magazines, too -­ Life, Look, and For­tune, for example – employed a num­ber of former FSA photographers in the forties and fifties as they evolved and per­fected the concept of the narrative pic­ture story.

The spirit of the FSA movement reached a kind of apogee in the Fami­ly of Man exhibition organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) in 1955. Steichen, by then the curator of photography at MoMA, had seen the FSA show at Grand Central Station in 1938 and had been impressed by the power of documentary photography to portray a national condition and move people’s emotions. During the recovery period following World War II, Steichen conceived the idea of developing a similar show on a global scale, one that would articulate a vision of common interest within a world of difference and promote the peaceful coexistence of nations. Putting out a universal call for images, Steichen, with Wayne Miller’s help, select­ed five hundred and three images taken by two hundred and seventy-three photographers. In addition, Steichen culled images from the files of the FSA and the National Archives in Washington; he went to Life magazine as well. The result – perhaps the most popular photography show ever – featured a selection of images from sixty-eight countries that was shaped by the tradition of the FSA documentary photography, as well as by the Henri Cartier-Bresson tradition of the “decisive moment,” which was also at that time very influential and was giving rise to a new generation of street photographers. Under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, The Family of Man toured Europe, Asia, Africa, and Russia.

Just as The Family of Man was pro­claiming its consensus vision of America and of the world, Robert Frank (born 1924) was traveling the country, creating what would become a classic of dis­sensus, The Americans. His 1959 book would take social observation and docu­mentary photography in a more subjec­tive direction, signaling a skepticism about American society and American prejudices that would open the door to a range of social commentary and descrip­tion in the decades to follow. Although the FSA under Stryker was striving for a coherent vision, one can find the seeds of Frank’s work and that of other social doc­umentary photographers in the exem­plary images by Walker Evans and his FSA colleagues.

Pennsylvania – with its mix of cities and small towns, its rural and wilderness areas, its mining industries and rich farm­ing areas, its financial and cultural cen­ters – has always offered a microcosm of American life. The Pennsylvania FSA photographs constitute a record of America at a crucial turning point in its history, a nation struggling to survive the worst economic depression of the twentieth century. Because of their great artistic value, these photographs are a record worth looking at again and again and again.


For Further Reading

Daniel, Peter, et al. Official Images: New Deal Photography. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

Fisher, Andrea. Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: Women Photographers for the U.S. Government, 1935-1944. Lon­don: Pandora, 1987.

Fleischhauer, Carl, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. Documenting America, 1935-1943. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of Cali­fornia Press, 1988.

Hurley, F. Jack. Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Docu­mentary Photography in the Thirties. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Lesy, Michael. Long Time Coming: A Pho­tographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943. New York: Norton, 2002.


This article originally appeared as the fore­word to Times of Sorrow & Hope: Docu­menting Everyday Life in Pennsylvania During the Depression and World War II: A Photographic Record by Allen Cohen and Ronald L. Filippelli, released by the Pennsylvania State University Press.


The editor acknowledges the assistance of Susan R. Shoup, publicity manager for the Penn State Press, who made possible the publi­cation and illustration of this piece as a magazine article.


Miles Orvell, of Philadelphia, is professor of English and American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is the author of books and magazine and journal articles and the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. He is currently working on an edition of FSA photographer John Vachon’s letters and photographs. In addition to his critically acclaimed writing, the author has lectured widely in the United States and throughout Europe.