Sunday, 10 July 2016

Remarkable photos in a poor format

You can see how small the book is compared with other photobooks that carry a general selection of FSA photos.

A thick, chunky book of photos in the Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis series (what they call compact cultural companions) with almost four hundred photos taken between 1935 and 1943. The majority are from the Farm Security Administration archives and a few from the Office of War Information but none showing how industry and the armed forces coped in a wartime setting up to 1943 when the OWI folded.

As you would expect most of the really famous FSA photos are here: migrant mother by Lange; the bleached skull and dust storm by Rothstein; Ella Watson (American gothic) by Parks; Bud Fields and family by Evans. I think the strength of the book is the two hundred or more photos that are relatively unknown in a nicely varied selection, a lot of rural poverty of course but also a cross-section of American life back then. There are also fifty-five color photos scattered through the book's 608 pages and nicely this included ten from Russell Lee's significant photo essay of Pie Town, New Mexico taken in 1940.

Author Peter Walther contributes, in the front of the book, a brief essay about the Roy Stryker and how he organized the photographers, the back pages have biographies of nineteen of them. The paper is a good matt art using a 175 screen for the images. All of them have captions and frequently a quote from the photographer about a particular shot.

Though the book is full of really wonderful photos I've only given it four stars because of the format. An upright page 7.75 by 5.5 inches doesn't really work with so many landscape pictures, it leaves half a page for the captions (in three languages) and empty white space. The small format also means that all the spread photos have the spine running through them. I was made aware of the book's shortcomings when comparing it with Michael Lesy's excellent 2002 published Long time coming which covers the same period with 410 photos (the only other book that has so many FSA pictures) but in a much larger size and with a photo a page though unfortunately no color. Of these two books I much prefer the Lesy title, more photos, a decent size, several good essays and it can picked up for a low price, too.

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