Beyond Migrant Mother: Five FSA Photographers to Know

While Dorothea Lange—and her portrait of Florence Thompson, Migrant Mother—has become one of the most well-known photographers to come out of the Great Depression and the Farm Security Administration’s photography project, there were a number of photographers who worked for the FSA to incite change.

The FSA, a New Deal agency, formed out of the need to defend the Resettlement Administration, which was tasked with resettling farmers on productive land and providing emergency relief. The FSA’s goal was to provide rural rehabilitation and subsistence programs to impoverished farmers and migrant workers. The photographic branch of the organization, led by Roy Stryker, hired photographers to travel the country and document the effects of drought and economic depression on rural areas, specifically farmers and migrant workers, and provide images depicting the progress these communities made with funding from these government entities.

Here Jessica Hunter and Florence Poynor in our photographs and photobooks department takes us through five FSA photographers you need to know.

 

Walker Evans

Walker Evans was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1903. Though he originally intended to start his career as a writer, he took up photography and employed literary techniques to create his powerful, often narrative imagery. In 1935, Evans was asked by the government to photograph one of their resettlement communities for the Department of the Interior. This led to his hiring by the RA (which later became the FSA). Working under Stryker, Evans photographed rural towns, creating architectural images of churches and roadside stores, as well as striking portraits of farmers and sharecroppers.

 
Walker Evans, Store Near Moundsville, Alabama, silver contact print, 1938, printed 1960s. Sold October 17, 2019 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $10,000.
 

“I was going around on my own very freely, wherever I pleased, just documenting the things that I saw, that I was interested in. I was all alone most of the time. I wasn’t looking for anything, things were looking for me.”

Walker Evans on his time photographing for the FSA
 
Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, ferrotyped silver print, 1936, printed 1960s.
Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, ferrotyped silver print, 1936, printed 1960s. Sold April 18, 2019, in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $8,125.
 

In the summer of 1936, Evans (who had been working for Fortune Magazine since 1934) took a temporary leave from the FSA to collaborate with the writer James Agee, initially on an article for Fortune, which was later rejected. The images from this period became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which Evans paired his images with Agee’s text to record the daily lives of Alabama sharecroppers. After his time with the FSA, Evans continued working for Fortune, serving as its Special Photographic Editor from 1945 to 1965, and was a professor at Yale University.

Related Reading: A Walker Evans Print, The Only One of Its Kind

 

Arthur Rothstein

Arthur Rothstein was born in New York City in 1915, and became the first FSA photographer hired by Stryker in 1935. Rothstein worked for the FSA for five years, photographing rural America, but his most well-known image was taken early in his career there: Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma. For several months of 1936, Rothstein was tasked with living in and photographing the Dust Bowl. This dramatic image of a father and his sons walking into a dust storm became one of the most well-known and widely reproduced photographs of the Dust Bowl.

 
Arthur Rothstein, Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, silver print, 1936, printed circa 1980.
Arthur Rothstein, Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, silver print, 1936, printed circa 1980. Sold February 25, 2020, in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $2,750.
 

“It was a picture that had a very simple kind of composition, but there was something about the swirling dust and the shed behind the farmer. What it did was the kind of thing Roy [Stryker] always talked about-it showed an individual in relation to his environment.”

Arthur Rothstein about ‘Dust Storm, Cimarron Country, Oklahoma,’ in coversation with Richard Doud for the Smithsonian Institution, 1964.

Rothstein’s photographs for the FSA are poignant, depicting a time of struggle and economic hardship in the rural United States. After his work there, Rothstein became a staff photographer for Look, eventually serving as director of photography for the magazine.

 

Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist. While most of the photographers hired by the FSA were photo-focused, Shahn’s background was as a painter and lithographer. During the Great Depression, Shahn was commissioned by the WPA to create murals and worked with the RA to design posters and pamphlets, but he was also hired as a part-time staff photographer for the FSA, due to a recommendation from Walker Evans. (Shahn’s entrée to photography was a studio space shared with Evans in 1929.) Shahn traveled across rural America photographing the plight of the communities there and capturing the strength of will of their residents.

 
Ben Shahn, Interior of Negro Tenant Farmer's Home, Little Rock, Arkansas, silver print, 1935.
Ben Shahn, Interior of Negro Tenant Farmer’s Home, Little Rock, Arkansas, silver print, 1935. Featured in our upcoming sale of Fine Photographs. Estimate $3,000 to $4,500.
 

“Now it’s called documentary which I suppose is alright. We just took pictures that cried out to be taken.”

Ben Shahn on his photography while with the FSA

Shahn used a right-angle viewfinder to appear as though he was taking a photograph of one subject while capturing another, catching his subjects off guard for a more candid image. He continued to use his photographs for the FSA as foundations for his artworks, establishing himself as a leading social realist of the time.

 

Marion Post Wolcott

Marion Post Wolcott started her career as a photojournalist in the mid-1930’s, despite the acute obstacles she faced as a woman in the field. Wolcott worked for publications such as LIFE and Fortune, and eventually became a permanent staff member of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, though she is best known for her work for the Farm Security Administration. 

 
Marion Post Wolcott, Jitterbugging in Juke Joint, Clarksdale, Mississippi, silver print, 1939, printed 1970s.
Marion Post Wolcott, Jitterbugging in Juke Joint, Clarksdale, Mississippi, silver print, 1939, printed 1970s. Sold October 17, 2013, in Fine Photographs & Photobooks for $3,000.
 

Before joining the FSA in 1938, Wolcott had worked in children’s psychology and social work, and for pro-labor organizations. These experiences, combined with her keen eye, allowed her to photograph the devastated country with intimacy and pathos.

“It [the FSA] was one of the few places you could go where you felt that your pictures would be used and seen and that you could be honest in your reporting, whether with a camera or any other device.”

Marion Post Wolcott in a 1965 interview with Richard Doud
 
Marion Post Wolcott, Marcella Cotton Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi, silver print, 1939.
Marion Post Wolcott, Marcella Cotton Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi, silver print, 1939. Sold February 15, 2018, in Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks for $4,000.
 

Swann has been fortunate to offer some of the most successful and well-known photographs from her FSA days, including Jitterbug Juke Joint on a Saturday Night, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1939, and Marcella Cotton Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi, 1939.

 

Carl Mydans

Carl Mydans was a journalist from Boston who first obtained a camera to assist his writing, but his skill and reputation in the field of photojournalism quickly flourished. He began working for the FSA in 1935, and was directed to the south to document the cotton industry. Mydans captured not only the physical environment, but also the people who were most affected by the hardships that consumed the area. His time working for the organization was brief, but his style and approach were adopted by other FSA photographers and ultimately shaped the success of the project.

 
Carl Mydans, Douglas MacArthur Landing in Luzon, Philippines, silver print, 1945, printed circa 1960.
Carl Mydans, Douglas MacArthur Landing in Luzon, Philippines, silver print, 1945, printed circa 1960. Sold October 17, 2019, in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $3,750.
 

“My very first period, when I was photographing with the FSA, I consider to be my most meaningful body of work. Before that, I didn’t know what America really was.”

Carl Mydans in 1997 on his time working on the project
 
Carl Mydans, Japanese Surrender, USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, silver print, 1945, printed circa 1990.
Carl Mydans, Japanese Surrender, USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, silver print, 1945, printed circa 1990. Sold October 17, 2013, in Fine Photographs & Photobooks for $2,000.
 

Mydans continued his photojournalism career and made significant contributions documenting World War II. Shooting for LIFE magazine, Mydans captured images such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur landing in Luzon, Philippines, 1945, and Japanese Surrender, USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, 1945, that gave Americans a glimpse of the war.  

 

Related Reading: The Social Document: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and Dorothea Lange & Photography as a Tool for Social Change