PRINT February 1964


“The Bitter Years” at the San Francisco Museum of Art

BETWEEN 1935 AND 1941, there occurred a unique period in the history of photography. The New Deal administration, faced with the reality of destructive depression, was eager to experiment in many fields to bring the economy back to prosperity, and the government turned to photographers to tell the story of how the depression had affected rural America. In 1935, President Roosevelt had created the Resettlement Administration within the Department of Agriculture, and had appointed Rexford Guy Tugwell, then Under Secretary of Agriculture and formerly Professor of Economics at Columbia University, as its administrator. Tugwell—most fortunately—appointed Roy E. Stryker to be head of the new Historical Section of the Division of Information of the Resettlement Administration, which in 1937 became the Farm Security Administration. Stryker was not himself a photographer, but was convinced that photography could be an important medium for explaining one man to another. He had been for many years Tugwell’s colleague on the economics faculty at Columbia.

Stryker’s function within the Farm Security Administration might be considered loosely parallel to Mathew Brady’s function during the Civil War: to find capable photographers and to send them out to bring back the truth about the area they were photographing. The F.S.A. photographers were given background material to read before they set out, but from then on, they were on their own. They might spend as much time as they needed in a particular place. Their only responsibility was to send back a simple, honest story of what was happening to the people. Stryker became convinced early in the project that the photographic essay had a greater impact than the single photograph, and he chose photographers whose temperaments and sympathies were well suited to their mission. The list is impressive: Paul Carter, John Collier, Jr., Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Theo Jung, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott. These photographers worked together, unmindful of their personal identity, in their desire to make their photographs the means of furthering human understanding.

The present show was designed by Edward Steichen (who also designed “The Family of Man” show of several years ago) as a whose vision created one of the “proudest achievements in the history of photography.” But “The Bitter Years” must be considered Steichen’s show as well as Stryker’s, because it was Steichen who chose the 200 photographs from the 270,000 negatives in the file of the Library of Congress. The emphasis on photographs of people would certainly seem to be Steichen’s, repeating his emphasis on people in “The Family of Man.” Many of Walker Evans’s best photographs are therefore omitted, old houses and their details (although the show does include the proudly clean, well-scrubbed Interior—Tenant Farm), which tell us as much about the people who live there as do the photographs of the people themselves.

Many of the photographs chosen by Steichen show people facing the camera, communicating directly with the photographer who carried their message back to Washington. The impact of this type of photograph is very personal, quite different from the more spontaneous-appearing photographs of people engaged in their work or their activities, seemingly unmindful of the photographer’s intrusion. These were people who through their faces, through their words, hoped to give information to their government that would enable that government to help them and their friends. They were people who had maintained their strength and dignity although their clothes were ragged and patched, although they lived in tents or drafty cabins with newspaper glued to the walls to keep out the cold, although they received only a few cents an hour for stoop-labor in the lettuce or cotton fields. They were an independent people, eager to work to feed their families, unwilling to take handouts unless their children were starving.

The F.S.A. photographers, in their documentation of the effect of the depression on rural America, reflected an intense concern with the nature of America that was to be found in many other arts at the time. Painters (like Burchfield, Hopper, Benton), poets (Sandburg, Frost), novelists (Dos Passos, Steinbeck) were all deeply involved in probing the substance and the meaning of the American scene. The photographers, all in their own way, were examining the way Americans were facing an overwhelming economic crisis. Each photographer was free to work in the way most satisfactory to him, using the camera he found most natural, and telling his story by whatever images he found necessary. Thus we see many types of photographs which symbolize human misery: the sharecroppers, the unemployed; the poor old people, the poor children; the people living in ragged tents or sitting beside the road with their household possessions piled helter skelter on their battered cars. We see the effects of drought, erosion, and dust. We see people (because Steichen has chosen people) who hold their heads upright in proud poverty.

The photographers represented by a number of photographs—Dorothea Lange’s photographs make up about a fifth of the show—have definite areas of interest and styles of presenting them. Many of Miss Lange’s photographs are portraits; Migrant Mother is probably her most famous photograph, but her other photographs are saturated with deep human sympathy. She shows us an old Negro woman, an ex-slave, leaning on her stick as she talks; or a little girl sleepily rubbing her eyes as she drags behind her the long sack for picking cotton.

Ben Shahn, one of the few artists who is able to think both as painter and as photographer, carries into his photographs the same feeling of design that he has in his paintings.

Russell Lee photographs people as they carry on their life in their homes. A child combs his hair in front of a mirror; the walls are lined with newspapers. An old Negro woman teaches her children to read and write to the best of her ability—but she writes “The rain are fallin.”

Jack Delano photographs a woman cooking dinner at a wood stove with a sweet-faced child beside her, and makes an image that seems to parody a contemporary cover for the Saturday Evening Post.

It is too bad that the San Francisco Museum was unable to obtain from the Museum of Modern Art, where the show originated, the text, or even the titles, that accompanied the photographs. As shown in San Francisco, the photographs seem isolated images which are probably not particularly meaningful to people too young to have lived through these times. The text must have tied them into a more coherent story. Most important were probably the direct quotations from the people photographed, for the F.S.A. photographers not only recorded the likenesses of their people on film, but also recorded in their notebooks the comments of the people about their lives.

In 1941, the Farm Security Administration was made part of the Office of War Information. The documentation of rural America was finished, and the file of negatives was turned over to the Library of Congress. In 1938, some of the photographs were exhibited at the First International Photographic Exposition in New York, and occasional photographs have been published in books and magazines. The books by Walker Evans, American Photographs, and, in collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; and Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s book, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, are some of the products of the F.S.A. period. “The Bitter Years,” although it shows such an infinitesimal fraction of the photographs, is the first exhibition for many years of these important photographs.

Margery Mann