Local vs. National Culture

While the advent and developement of mass culture in the 1930s brought much good to many Americans, the nation was still wary of changes that threatened to destroy much of what they prized about their local culture. Americans were particularly disturbed by a national consumer culture that always seemed to be poking its way into their established--and largely regional ways. These developments--and this tension--played itself out in much of the FSA's photography. Stryker often bragged about the project's refusal to depict celebrities (only one picture of FDR is featured in the entire collection) and news stories. Levine discusses "one of the truths of the FSA-OWI photographs" (Brannan & Fleischhauer 39):
They paid more attention to regional and folk than to popular and mass culture. While these documents attest to America's complex ethnic, regional, and cultural heterogeneity, they are less successful depicting the growing uniformity and standardization imposed by the forces of modernization. There are, to be sure, important indications of the intrusion of a national culture onto the local scene (Brannan & Fleischhauer 39).

Children on East Sixty-First Street, probably between First and Second Avenues, Walker Evans, New York City.
In the 1930s the spread of advertising, the proliferation of the automobile, and the development of radio, picture magazines, and film created a mass American culture that likely could not have been imagined a few decades before. Still many reminders of local and regional identity endured. Even in the FSA photography files, which Stryker and others tab as one of the first illustrations of--even creators of--national culture, regional identity emerges throughout all areas of the country. Despite the similarities that the project reminds us that we as Americans have, no one would confuse an Oklahoma dust bowl migrant with an Alabama sharecropper or a New York City slum resident with a Miami socialite. The local cultures, particularly in the South, are just too strong as dress, manners, geography, and even the attitudes of the photographers themselves portray strikingly different folk throughout the nation's southeast.

Son of farmer in dust bowl area, Arthur Rothstein, Cimarron County Oklahoma.
The intrusions that he discusses are plentiful and already have been alluded to in the project's banner where national advertisements crowd their way into the most patently of rural scenes, but Levine hits upon a strikingly important--and thanks to Stryker's claims of introducing America to Americans, oft-ignored point--that the FSA collection most fundamental addition to the nation's understanding of what it means to be an American is not its creation of a common form but instead its insistence that a variety of true Americans exist, and only in this complex framework can a real American identity be ascertained. As Alan Trachtenberg observes, the FSA photos often feature a large degree of nostalgia, trumpeting rather than denigrating an American regionalism seen as in danger by an expanding national culture (Brannan & Fleischhauer 59).

The regionalism present in these photos is very easy to detect, and an analysis of it on a national level quickly becomes a remarkably easy exercise. For example, the three images that dot this page--an Arkansas cotton picker, a group of New York City children, and a boy in the Oklahoma dust bowl--are so radically different that a detailed commentary on what makes them unique is hardly necessary. No one could doubt that the top image connotes a uniquely southern feel or that the urban North is not represented by the picture at the left. The midwest dust bowl, the most enduring image from the FSA collection, is unmistably represented by the seemingly lost child, dwarfed by his large, and strikingly barren, surroundings. The regional identity that always pokes its way into these photos, I argue, is not just present on a national level. Even in the South, America's most familiar and often seen as its most coherent, region, a myriad of sub-regional identities quickly leap to the forefront. In analyzing the differences between photographs taken of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, southern Florida, central Alabama, and the Mississippi Delta, I hope to reveal just how diverse an America FSA photographers captured with their camera and just how ambitious a project the formation of an American identity truly was.

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