"We introduced America to Americans"
--Roy Stryker, Historical Section chief, Information Division, FSA
"From its founding, the new nation was a nation of regions"
--Edward Ayers, American Regionalism
Stryker's presemptuous statement quickly begs the question, "which Americans?" Does the FSA head mean the sharecroppers in Alabama, the slum-ridden in Boston, the wealthy vacactioning in Miami, the old-fashioned denizens of the Virginia mountains, the displaced farmers of Oklahoma, the Wall Street businessman of New York, or the labor camp workers in California? The differences within the groups clearly are many. Each would boast different dress, different tools, and, more than likely a different, face. Coming from varied areas of the country, the groups also possess disparate geographic backgrounds which shaped them and they in turn have shaped. If, in fact, all the FSA photographers had been as determined to see truth--and eschew propaganda--as Stryker purported, these would be just about all the differences; however, even a brief look at the FSA files shows this is not true. Whether it is more subtle techniques such as a shift in the angle of the camera or more blatant ones like the removal of background objects seen as not fitting the mood, the FSA photographers often strove to achieve not just the image as they saw it, but the image as they felt it and believed it should be felt. Documentary photography, appealing primarily to the emotions, oddly enough proved a particularly manipulatable vehical, especially because the 1930s audiences that were eagerly grabbing the first issues of Life magazine off the racks lacked many of the tools--and much of the cynicism--needed to read the photographs.
Mr. Hale from Snow Hill conducting school in the Pleasant Grove Baptist
Church Building, Arthur Rothstein, Gee's Bend, Alabama.
Through film, radio, and the aforementioned picture magazines, the 1930s represented in many ways the advent of American mass culture. More than ever before, the national culture poked its way into the local scene, to which the FSA photographs surely attest. This period in American life, however, marked a time where national and local cultures still struggled to negotiate their proper place. The image above, like many in the FSA collection, marks just this tension. A national advertisement hangs across the open window, but surely no viewer would believe this picture admits nothing to its location. The picture is not from New England, California, or Ohio; it is from the South.
Fiddlin' Bill Henseley, mountain fiddler, Ben Shahn, Asheville, North Carolina.
Historians that herald this decade as one in which a national culture was created have added much to an understanding of 20th century America. It is the goal of this project, however, to demonstrate that even in a project charged with creating a national identity, regional identity can never be fully subverted. America, even today, is a constant negotiation of more local and national ways, and the FSA project for its critical timing and its great breadth provides an excellent set of lens through which to view this phenomenon.