Ever since the days of Crevecouer, Americans have remained a people with a peculiar quest for self-definition. "What," they have asked for over 220 years, "is an American?" In the 1930s, as American creeds and individuals likewise came under attack, this call reached a fevered pitch. As Stott argues, the thirties' imagination featured a desire, a need "to get the texture of reality, of America" (Stott 128). Through their movies, their radio broadcasts, and through their immediately widespread picture magazines, Americans searched everywhere for the cultural significance of their existence as a people.

Warren Susman tabs "the shift to a culture of sight and sound" as the profound development of the thirties: "It increased our self-awareness as a culture; it helped create a unity of response and action not previously possible" (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 40). The sheer amount of information that these new media could dissimulate made possible a new--and slightly more complex--understanding of American identity. In his final analysis of the FSA collection, Trachtenberg observes that the "photographs tell not a single 'story' but a multitude of stories. Images deposited in the lots are raw material, not yet ordered, not yet inflected into distinct relationships and sequences. They await another editorial act, a more focused construction: the invention of a 'story' in which each image has its say" (Brannan & Fleischhauer 70). This advent of this invented story marked an entirely new phenomenon in an American history filled with Mayflowers and cherry trees. Implicit in what Trachtenberg referred to as the "invention of a story" is the recognition that one narrative can no longer explain the evolution of millions of people, that one image can not represent an increasingly diversifying nation.

Stryker once remarked that the triumph of his collection was that it "helped connect one generation's image of itself with the reality of its own time in history" (qtd. in Davis 11). And the most fundamental reality of the Great Depression, the most fundamental lesson it teaches is that simple answers and age-old platitudes are not enough to manage, and to inspire, the myriad members of a modern democracy. Just as simple, unfettered capitalism proved unworkable with American ideals, one national identity--easily plastered across posters and movie screens--could not begin to encompass the American people. Instead, the glory of the nation lied in great diversity of its people, and it was only in recognizing--and even basking in--this difference that Americans could hope to embrace a truly democratic future. Behind the vaguely articulated vision of Roy Stryker and countless rolls of film, the FSA photographic file provided just a glimpse at this diversity. Through the FSA, America was introduced to a new and loosely defined assemblage called Americans, a group which it probably never could have imagined beforehand but which, afterwards, it could never possibly forget.

Intro Stryker and the FSA Documentary Photography as a Medium Local vs. National Blue Ridge Mountains Southern Florida Central Alabama Mississippi Delta Conclusion

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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: May 10, 1999