part three: The Farm Security Administration

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: YES.

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' artistic genius.

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 for?
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."

Go Back to Photography As a Research Method OR Move on to Evans' Images OR Return to Table of Contents