Documenting America: Roy Stryker and the FSA

Under the direction of economist Roy Stryker (1893-1975), the Farm Security Administration became a milestone in the history of American documentary photography; a collection of over 170,000 images by photographers including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Ben Shan, whose work came to define the face of 1930s and 1940s rural America.

A successor to the Resettlement Administration (RA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was formed by an act of Congress in 1937. One of Franklin¬† Roosevelt’s most important New Deal programs, the FSA strove to help struggling farmers survive the Great Depression. Stryker was appointed to head the FSA’s ‘Historical Section’ by his previous mentor at Columbia’s economics department, RA chief, Rexford Tugwell. The Historical Section existed to both record the widespread economic depression across America, and promote the benefits of the FSA’s relief work. The FSA’s photographic survey remains unmatched; at no other point in American history has a government agency publicly funded a comparable visual document of American life.

As well as overseeing the development of the photography project by commissioning photographers, Stryker also worked hard to secure the publication of FSA photographs in newspapers, and influential magazines such as Life, Look, Survey and Graphic, during these early days of modern photojournalism. The photographs also entered the collections of museums and galleries around the country, and some were exhibited at the World’s Fair, New York, in 1939. After the FSA’s closure in 1942, Stryker went on to direct documentary projects for the Standard Oil (New Jersey) Company (1943-1950), the city of Pittsburgh (1950-1951), and Jones & Laughlin Steel (1952-1958).

In the mid-1940s, the Library of Congress Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection was assembled, consisting of 175,000 negatives and 1,600 colour transparencies, which remains the authoritative source on the work of the FSA.

What has remained largely unknown until now, is that Roy Stryker also sent an archive of prints to Ramona Javitz, the director of the New York Public Library (NYPL) Picture Collection, in order to help ensure the FSA’s legacy. The 41,000 prints in the NYPL were assumed to largely be duplicates of negatives in the Library of Congress. Until the late 1950s, many original prints even remained part of the NYPL’s lending library.

However a cataloguing project begun at the NYPL in 2005, has revealed that 1,000 of these images are not in the Library of Congress. These 1,000 images have now been digitized and are available on a special NYPL website. (A separate records only website exists for the full collection of 41,000 images.) A small selection of images from the NYPL’s FSA collection can also be viewed via the New York Times photography blog Lens, which first reported the news of this recently rediscovered archive on the 6th June.

Farmhouse and family of resettlement client. Waldo County, Maine. (1936 Mar.) Photographer: Paul Carter. Collection: NYPL

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