In 1935, President Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration, a federal agency responsible for "low-interest loans to poor farmers which would enable them to leave small or marginal tracts and become owners of productive lands; land-renewal projects, such as reforestation; removal of certain families from cities where the economy would not sustain them to communal farms and well-ordered rural villages where they could become self-sufficient; and sponsorship of camps for migrant farm workers" (Stryker 7). Rexford Tugwell, a longtime friend and adviser to the president, became its director. In July 1937, after the RA proved unable to relieve the suffering of American farmers, Congress passed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, which provided $85 million in loans, spread over three years, "to help tenant farmers buy their own land, animals, seed, feed, and machinery, as well as help existing land-owners to rehabilitate their properties" (Watkins 296). The law also established the Farm Security Administration, which absorbed the responsibilities of the RA, to implement the plan.

Tugwell realized early on that New Deal programs, such as those sponsored by the RA/FSA, were targets for conservative politicians. Therefore, he created the Information Division "to put out positive propaganda" about agency projects (McElvaine 302). In July 1935, he hired his former student and associate at Columbia University, economist Roy Emerson Stryker, to head up a historical section of that division (Watkins 6). Stryker's duties included assembling and supervising a group of highly skilled photographers to record both the need for and success of RA/FSA programs around the country. Names such as Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans, Evans, Ben Shahn, Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, and John Collier graced Stryker's staff roster throughout the years. No one ever earned more than $3,000 per year, but the group managed to produce 270,000 pictures between 1935 and 1943, spending nearly one million federal dollars (Watkins 7; Stryker 7, 16; Daniel 1).1

Stryker grew up in a small Colorado town but once in New York discovered two passions: teaching and photography. Because he refused to lecture from the book (instead, for example, taking his students to labor meetings), Stryker's colleagues in academia considered him unorthodox (Stryker 10-11). The economist pursued photography in a similarly unstructured and equally enthusiastic manner. "Perhaps my greatest asset was my lack of photographic knowledge," Stryker once explained retrospectively. "I didn't subscribe to anybody's particular school of photographic thought. I had what was then a strange notion--that pictures are pictures regardless of how they are taken" (Stryker 11). The result, according to historian T.H. Watkins, was "a pictorial archive that in technical quality, artistic merit, and overall comprehensiveness is unequalled anywhere" (7).

Stryker and his cadre of photographers hardly worked inside a cultural vacuum. The 1930s witnessed an explosion of documentary work--photos, films, and books as well as government documents--that caused many to question the purpose and artistic merit of such efforts. That is, could the FSA photographs, allegedly unadulterated and objectively snapped, be art, or, rather, did they represent purely propagandistic material? The answer encompasses both views.

'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
1 Stryker's division was eventually transferred to the Office of War Information.