Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Looking backwards (5/5)

These books have a general collection of FSA/OWI photos rather than photographer monographs

A stunning book of 410 photos from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information archives which are now in the Library of Congress.  This book takes a different approach to the many others which use FSA photos, here you will not see many of those well-known images of poverty in rural areas, the effects of land erosion, the plight of Southern sharecroppers, not even the greatest FSA photo of all (in my view) Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother but instead a comprehensive and wonderful showing of the ordinary and every day in American life from 1935 to 1943.

All these fascinating photos are divided into eight sections, City Life, Hard Work, Hometowns, Hill Towns, Coal Towns, Family Farms, Hard Times and Amusements.  Most of them are from 1938 to 1943 so there are few by Walker Evans who left the FSA in 1937 but plenty by Russell Lee, the most prolific FSA photographer.  The photos (well printed on excellent paper) are presented one to a page with a caption, photographer's name and date centered below.  Because these are FSA  images they depict a very detailed picture of everyday life and in 1941 when the US joined the Second World War it was decided to expand the coverage to record the war effort and life in general.  This is the main reason I like the book plus the eighty-two photos never published before.

Between the eight photo sections, author Lesy writes (in a very honest way) various essays about Roy Stryker, who ran the FSA and how he organized the photographer's work through his exacting shooting scripts (these were partially inspired by Robert Lynd and his 1925 book, `Middletown' based on Muncie, Indiana which turns out to be average small town USA, tough luck Peoria, Illinois!) how this huge file of images was distributed to the media, correspondence between Stryker and the photographers and more.  I found one section (pages 230 to 235) called `The Middletown Spirit' very intriguing, it is a list of the things that the folks of  `Middletown' (or small towns anywhere) believed in and as well as the goodness that one would expect it also reflects an alarming collection of deeply conservative beliefs, ethnic prejudice and a Horatio Alger like deference towards business.  The back of the book lists all the negative numbers so you can order prints from the Library of Congress and in fact, see 60,000 photos from the FSA/OWI collection on the Library's American Memory' website.

Because of what these photographs show, the quality of presentation and production, I think this will become the definitive reference book for the period.  A glorious reminder of the American spirit.

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