Out of One, Many

Regionalism in FSA Photography

"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 presumptuous statement quickly begs the question "which Americans?" Clearly the FSA photographs were revolutionary in their shunning of celebrities to depict "the folk," but, when Stryker says "Americans," does the FSA head mean the sharecroppers in Alabama, the slum-ridden in Boston, the wealthy vacationers in Miami, the down-home denizens of the Virginia mountains, the displaced farmers of Oklahoma, the Wall Street businessman, or the labor camp workers in California? As Stryker's photographers would learn as they traveled the nation, the differences between the groups clearly are myriad. Each boast different dress, different tools, and somehow different-unique--faces. Coming from varied areas of the country, the groups also possess disparate geographic backgrounds, which have shaped them and they in turn have shaped. If, in fact, all the FSA photographers had been as determined to capture 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 the case. Whether the famed photographers employed subtle techniques such as a shift in the angle of the camera or more blatant ones like the removal of background objects, which they did not believe fit the mood, they 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.

Mr. Hale from Snow Hill conducting school in the Pleasant Grove Baptist
Church Building, Arthur Rothstein, Gee's Bend, Alabama.

Although each expert and photographer boasts a slightly different opinion on documentary photography, Ansel Adams provides us with a particularly useful definition, calling it "the type of photography which interprets the social scene in the way of commentary" (qtd. in Featherstone 1-2). To Adams and other viewers, documentary photographers were not just like Dorothea Lange remarked "after the truth," they were after a particular reaction from the people observing the photograph. Being that documentary photography's primary appeal is to the emotions, it oddly enough proved a particularly manipulative vehicle, 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 (Stott). As John Rogers Puckett remarks, "the illusion of truth in a photograph is very convincing" [emphasis added] (16).

Fiddlin' Bill Henseley, mountain fiddler, Ben Shahn, Asheville, North Carolina.

And into an environment which William Stott remarked as featuring "the consummate need of the thirties imagination to get the texture of reality, of America; to feel it and make it felt" stepped Rexford Tugwell, Roy Stryker, and the FSA. Charged with showing the extent of the depression's economic disaster and the effectiveness of FSA programs to alleviate it, Stryker possessed a very specific motive, and by the end of his run he had more than a quarter million photographs in which to express it. Through film, radio, and magazines, the 1930s represented in many ways the advent of American mass culture, and the FSA photographs--circulated in exhibits, newspapers, and picture magazines--became a primary crucible in which the American identity would be shaped. As this occurred, however, national and local cultures still struggled to negotiate their proper place. The image collage, which serves as banner for this project, marks just this tension. National advertisements hang in both of the top two pictures, but surely no viewer would believe these pictures admit nothing to their location. The pictures are not from New England, California, or Ohio; they are from the South. And this project argues that even in the South--America's preeminent region--many sub-regional differences exist. The pictures in the banner image, moving clockwise from top-left, are from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, central Alabama, the Mississippi Delta, and southern Florida, and they are from those regions unmistakably.

Historians that herald the decade of the 1930s as the one in which America forged its national culture have added much to an understanding of 20th century America. It is the goal of this project, however, to demonstrate that even in Stryker's work--a project charged with creating a national identity--regional identity could never be fully subverted. America, even today, is a constant negotiation of more local and national ways, and the American ever defies conventional definition; the FSA project, for its critical timing and its great breadth, provides an excellent set of lenses through which to view these phenomena.

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

Works Cited and
Suggested Reading
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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: May 10, 1999