Senior Thesis on Farm Security Administration Historical Section Documentary Photography

Rachel Anne Schles, Class of 2007

In a series of trips during winter break and into the spring semester I traveled to the New York Public Library in New York City to do research in the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information Written Records (FSA-OWI) and the Roy E. Stryker Papers on microfilm. The FSA-OWI Written Records are the paper archive of a government agency known as the Historical Section. The Historical Section was originally created within the FSA to visually document the need for New Deal Programs as well as document the effects of the FSA in diminishing rural poverty in the United States during the Great Depression. Over the course of the 1930s Roy Stryker, the Historical Section’s director, and its photographers—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott, to name a few—transformed the Historical Section’s mission to create a photographic record of America. Ultimately, the Historical Section would create over 150,000 photographs captured from 1935 to 1945, the largest government-funded photographic documentation of the United States to date. For my thesis, I am examining how World War II affected the documentary photography produced by the Historical Section from roughly 1936 to 1943.

In order to fully understand how World War II affected the Historical Section’s photographers and their work, I turned to the archives of the FSA-OWI and Roy Stryker. As the photographers spent months on the road, there is a wealth of correspondence between them and Roy Stryker, and I began my research by looking at these letters. From the letters, I learned that while Stryker gave the photographers general assignments, once on the road the photographers had great freedom in how they chose to photograph these assignments. However, I found that as World War II approached the photographers began to face increasing security measures. By the time the United States entered World War II each Historical Section photographer had an FBI file, and was required to receive permission from the FBI, military, and other government branches before going on any assignments. Furthermore, when their film was sent back to Washington D.C. to be developed and printed, any image could be censored. Wartime security measures went so far that the Historical Section could not order certain types of camera lens because the government had classified it, leaving an untraceable impact on the photographic record because we will never know what images were not captured. Partially in response to wartime pressures, the Historical Section was transferred from the Farm Security Administration to the Office of War Information in the fall of 1942. As a result of this transfer, and the changing message the United States wanted to present at this time, the Historical Section began capturing images which contributed to the war effort by attempting to portray a strong country, quickly recovering from the Depression and ready to win World War II. This in turn affected the images the Historical Section produced, but Stryker and the photographers continually fought to create a photographic archive of the United States, never losing sight of their goal to “introduce Americans to America.”

Without the Evalyn Clark Travel Fellowship, I never would have been able to complete the research for my thesis. The photographic archive of the Historical Section has been digitized and is available through the Library of Congress’s website. The FSA-OWI Written Records and the Roy E. Stryker Papers are housed in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and at The University of Louisville respectively, but are also available on microfilm at a few institutions around the country. I have been fortunate to be able to access both collections at the New York Public Library, solely due to the funds I was awarded through this Fellowship. Through the research I have conducted for my thesis and as a photographer myself, I have come to have a tremendous respect for the work Roy Stryker and the Historical Section photographers did in raising documentary photography to a form of art.