Documenting American Squalor: Farm Security Administration

by Derrick Bostrom

The Great Depression actually started long before most of us took notice. I'm not talking about a status-quo cultural landscape of capitalist exploitation and class division. I'm talking about hundreds of thousands of subsistance farmers, isolated for generations, cut off from the latest advances in agricultural best practices, turning region after region of fertile land into fallow, erosion-damaged rural slums.

For the Roosevelt administration and those at the forefront of the New Deal, this situation suggested but one solution: RELOCATION! Created for just this purpose, the Resettlement Administration fanned out across the country, spreading the gospel of cooperative farming and planned "greenbelt" communities. But despite the government's best efforts, farmers insisted on private ownership over collectivism.

Eventually, the RA was folded into the Department of Agriculture's Farm Security Administration, and -- after the necessary purge of a few grumbling hardliners -- shifted its focus to providing small farms with loans and agribusiness training. To help disseminate its progressive agenda, the FSA's Information Division hired some of the greatest photographers of the era to document the face of rural poverty, as well as its relief at the hands of the goverment.

In the process, such notables as Walker Evans,Dorothea Lange,Gordon Parks and Marion Post Wolcott provided evidence of all the New Deal's pet ills: land mismanagement, urban blight, inadequate sanitation, poor health conditions, race discrimination, ignorance and so on. Their body of work for the FSA has it all: history, asthetics, ideology, irony, empathy and above all, an incredible attention to detail.

The Library of Congress hosts a huge online collection of these photographs. If you spend enough time browsing this site, you're left with an awesome, undeniable sense of the nation's crisis in its full scope. It's as if the entire country had turned into Jacob Riis' Fourth Ward.

To make sure you don't miss the ideological slant of the material, many of the photos sport such evocative titles as "Cheap partly-constructed houses lacking water and sewage, Lockland, Ohio", "Houses which have been condemned by the Board of Health, but are still occupied by Negro Migratory workers, Belle Glade, Fla" and "The poorer the land, the more frequently one sees religious signs along highways, Alabama."

Critics of the FSA cite the often transparent staging of some of the scenes, or decry their blatant explotation of human misery to further a political agenda. But we're not here to debate that point. Whatever the motivations or machinations behind these photos, their sheer, powerful beauty can only be applauded. The only fault I can find with this collection is its sheer volume. I have wasted many an hour pouring through seemingly endless catalogues of decrepit buildings, filthy children and demeaning labor. I have become addicted to photos of people canning tomatos and crating celery.

As the thirties turned to the forties, and the country shifted to a war footing, the photographic unit of the FSA moved over to the Office Of War Information. There, it spent its final years documenting militarty adventures overseas and industrial activity here at home. Ironically enough, the same photographers who began the project taking pictures of the coerced relocation of squalid farm dwellers went on to document the forced relocation of Japanese Americans.

Readers are strongly encouraged to visit the Library of Congress Documenting America site.

Here are just a few samples of what you'll find: