In Documentary Expression and Thirties America, William Stott discusses the burgeoning documentary movement during the depression. He differentiates between official documents, perhaps best exemplified by objective and dry legal papers, and human documents. The difference rests in sensibility: "We understand a historical document intellectually, but we understand a human document emotionally" (Stott 8). Human documentary forces people to confront--not just with their eyes but also with their hearts--what they have tried to deny. Social documentary goes one step further. The FSA images, for example, "put us in touch with the perennial human spirit, but show it struggling in a particular social context at a specific historical moment. They sensitize our intellect (or educate our emotions) about actual life" (18). Such contextualization allows for feelings of hope by suggesting that current conditions need not endure. Social documentary "shows man at grips with conditions neither permanent nor necessary, conditions of a certain time or place" (20).

'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
"Dancing lessons"
"Taking up dancing lessons from supervisor"
During the Depression, a number of government agencies besides the FSA initiated publicity efforts, hoping to keep the propaganda spinning in their favor. The Department of Agriculture, the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, among others, all produced a plethora of photographs. The work of each program demonstrated varying degrees of technical talent as well as diverse federal objectives. The NYA, for example, which often put cameras in the hands of those whom it served, sought to relieve American fears about a growing "youth problem" by depicting New Deal projects targeting boys and girls of all ages, both in and out of school (Daniel 94). By their very nature, these pictures--including images of dance and typing lessons, boys learning mechanical skills, and children enjoying a movie--convey a seemingly stable socioeconomic situation compared to most FSA works. NYA children and teens appear nearly oblivious to the economic conditions of their country, but, more importantly for the NYA, they appear occupied, even industrious.
"Doing clerical work"
NYA boys doing clerical work for REA"

In short, all New Deal photography represents propaganda of some sort, albeit in a relatively new and deceptively subjective way. In the introduction to Official Images: New Deal Photography, Pete Daniel and Sally Stein explain the fundamental quality of New Deal documentary as "a style that looked candid, intimate yet nonintrusive, even as it promoted the value of forceful, bureaucratic government intervention to shore up a stagnant economy" (ix). As a cross between an aesthetic form and a technical achievement, photography allowed people to view somewhat manipulated images--in the sense that the cameraperson determined the angle, content, and frame of the picture--in a genuinely enjoyable visual style. In fact, as Stott asserts, the propagandistic power of photography proved so effective during the depression that the government bureaucratized the form, making "the weapon that undermined the establishment part of the establishment" (92).

Still, the photographic achievements of the FSA stand apart from the rest. Stryker assembled perhaps the greatest talent of the era and their collective work remains the largest archiving effort in U.S. history. Of the original 270,000 pictures, 170,000 negatives and 70,000 FSA images remain available to the public at the Library of Congress while the government stores other New Deal photos at the National Archives. Moreover, as the most frequently re-presented Depression-era images, both during the '30s and after, the FSA photos have had the greatest impact on our collective memory. According to FSA historian Maren Stange:

Stryker saw to it that, by 1938, FSA photographs had appeared in Time, Fortune, Today, Look, and Life…. They were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Democratic National Convention of 1936. By 1940, they had been published in nearly a dozen books, including Walker Evans' American Photographs, Archibald MacLeish's Land of the Free, Herman Nixon's Forty Acres and Steel Mules, and Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor's American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (Daniel 1).

Evans' book was reprinted in both 1962 and 1988. In 1966, a year after Lange passed away, the Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition of her life's work and oversaw publication of the accompanying catalog. In addition, a collection of Wolcott's FSA prints was published in 1983, and, in 1995, a number of FSA images were reproduced in America at the Crossroads: Great Photographs From the Thirties. This sampling of FSA-inspired publications is not to suggest that other New Deal images are neither as stirring nor as effective as the FSA photos--only that the FSA images prove the most prevalent. However, there is also something to be said for the powerful artistry of Stryker's collection.

A photograph by Wolcott, for example, shows a coal miner's child carrying home a can of kerosene but calls to mind the work of a French impressionist. The small girl wears a dirty white dress and tips head and body toward the left to balance the weight of the can in her right hand. A shabby house towers above her on the right while an idle train, overflowing with coal, sits adjacent to her dirt path. Both the house and the train accentuate the smallness of the child's body as she struggles to bring the kerosene home to her family. The unmoving train and its full cargo, moreover, symbolize the cause of the girl's destitution. For while goods--be they natural resources, such as coal, or agricultural products--abound, there are no consumers. Behind the train, we glimpse gently rolling hills, which remind us of a simpler, less industrialized time when childhood innocence prevailed. The tension between what could be and what really is heightens our feelings of pity for this little child caught in the middle.

"Child taking home kerosene"
"Coal miner's child taking home kerosene for lamps"
Wolcott's child attracts the viewer's eye in much the same way as the white-clad girl does in Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." In the painting, a young girl wearing a pristine white dress sits amid gay picnickers. As the central source of white within the frame, Seurat's child stands out from the happy scene as a picture of innocence in much the same way as Wolcott's child stands out as the innocent victim among signs of industrial devastation.
"La Grande Jatte"
"La Grande Jatte"

Seurat's pointillist achievement represents the type of high art commissioned, studied, and appreciated by the upper classes. The subjects of Wolcott's pictures would be unfamiliar with paintings like "An Afternoon at La Grande Jatte." The intended audience for FSA photographs, however, was not of the same class as the imaged subjects, and white, middle-class America could recognize the visual allusions. Such aesthetic references, in fact, allowed middle- and upper-class viewers to sympathize with the subjects in a way not otherwise possible. According to Stott, documentary images provided common ground during the '30s. "Documentary is a radically democratic genre," he writes. "It dignifies the usual and levels the extraordinary. Most often its subject is the common man, and when it is not, the subject, however exalted he be, is looked at from the common man's point of view" (49). The pictures provide a parable of how life could be, allowing viewers to sympathize across regional, class, racial, and gender lines.

Beauty derives from the tension between known artistic forms and the simplicity of the images themselves, forcing viewers to take a second look. Then they see the distortion of everyday scenes--a child carrying a can of kerosene rather than a picnic basket or a pile of schoolbooks, for example--which inspires an affective response. Documentary images encourage the audience to feel as well as to see. Stryker once explained, "A good documentary should tell not only what a place or a thing or a person looks like, but it must also tell the audience what it would feel like to be an actual witness to the scene" (Qtd in Stott 29). Good documentary, however, also enables one to empathize with the subject, a quality that characterizes documentary photography as art. In a 1937 issue of U.S. Camera Magazine, an essayist writes of Evans' work: "For me this is better propaganda than it would be if it were not aesthetically enjoyable. It is because I enjoy looking that I go on looking until the pity and the shame are impressed upon me, unforgettably" (Qtd in Stott 273).