Roy Stryker, the head of the FSA photographic project, stressed the
uniqueness of such an undertaking: "It was one of those freaks it can't
happen again." As Michael Brix contests, it could only have happened in
America in the 1930's where a transformation was taking place from a
reading culture to a visual culture: "Picture books and illustrated
journals dominated the scene, and newly-founded magazines like Life
and Look altered the reading habits of Society." Roy
Stryker's purpose was to gather information about the historical,
sociological, and economic aspects of the government's relief programs
and their accomplishments. (The Farm Security Administration,
formerly the Resettlement Administration, was one of the New Deal relief
programs that believed that government intervention could provide the
cure to the nation's agricultural ills, and "modernize
agriculture.") Stryker gathered a task force of approximately 15
photographers (of which Walker Evans was one of the first) to fan the
country compiling information of the FSA's relief efforts.
In this project, I do not wish to contend whether these relief
efforts were the cure to America's agricultural ills, nor whether Walker
Evans' photographs were the catalyst for that cure, what I do want to
emphasize are the choices that Evans made as an individual artist, who
split from the political nature of Stryker's project. Being employed by
the government posed important questions to Evans: Would he be able to
maintain his independence? Could he escape the photo-journalism that he
despised, or his being used for political purposes? The answer:
Evans wanted nothing to do with the political agenda of the New
Deal; he was not heading for the goal proposed by Stryker (that people
had the ability to raise themselves up from their poor conditions).
Stryker said: "You could look at the people and see fear and sadness and
desperation. But you saw something else, too. A determination that not
even the Depression could kill. The photographers saw it--documented
it." This may have applied to some photographers, such as Russell Lee and Dorothea
Lange, but not for Evans. His work lacked what Michael Brix
noted as an "expression of future-orientation."
This future orientation was the key to the Farm Security
Administration's entire conception. They were proposing to create a
"better future" for the rural poor, and they wanted the photographs to
prove it. However, by looking at Evans photographs, it should become
evident that Evans' goal was to photograph his subjects as they were
in the present, by using his abilities as an artist to portray these
people for who they were, not what they should or would become.
Lincoln Kirstein said about Evans' photographs: he was a "conspirator
against time and its hammers; his pictures testify to the selfishness
and waste that caused the ruin, and they would salvage whatever was
splendid for the survivors."
Evans' integrity did bring him into conflict with Stryker, and
eventually Stryker let Evans go in 1937. But before this happened
Walker Evans made some of the most powerful images of America that have
ever been created. In this sense, Evans bridged the gap between
social-documentary record, and art; he denied his images to be of the
stereotype FSA documentary image, although they were used as such.
Thus, I believe his images are twofold : as documentary images they are
unparalleled in their "realism," and this is so because of Evans'
So, working for the FSA, in fact, turned out, for Evans, to be an
all-expenses-paid trip to make pictures--what more can a photographer ask
As Alan Trachtenberg suggests: "The FSA provided the material conditions for his work, not its purpose or rationale--at least as far as Evans was concerned."
Evans wrote to an official before joining Stryker's project: "I am exceedingly interested in the undertaking, which seems to me to have enormous possibilities, of precisely the sort that interest me."