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Friday, 13 August 2010

"The detail and the deeper meaning of everything American": Remembering the FSA Photo Project



Indian houses and farms on Laguna Indian Reservation, Laguna, New Mexico, March 1943

Jack and Irene Delano on the Farm Security Administration Historical Section photographic project, interviewed by Richard K. Doud, Rio Pedras, Puerto Rico, June 12, 1965: from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (edited excerpts from interview transcript)

"...the detail and the deeper meaning of everything American..."

JACK DELANO: [FSA Director] Roy [Stryker] gave you the feeling that he knew more about everything than you did and, above all, that knew more about America that you did, by far. And that's one of the things that I loved about Roy and one of the things I got most from him was a feeling about the United States, about America. This enthusiasm and love for the detail and the deeper meaning of everything American was something that he must have transmitted to everybody. He certainly did to me. In preparing for an assignment he not only gave us books to read, and all kinds of other things, but would talk and talk and talk in great detail about what you will find up there, and what you must look for, and there is a certain drugstore on such and such a corner which has a certain thing in the window which you must be sure to find, and so on. And he almost always would end up in saying, "But, of course, if you don't find any of these things, you do what you want to anyway." This is the way it always ended and frequently, after lengthy and detailed instructions and shooting scripts that Roy would develop, if you got up there and found that there was something else that interested you, and something else that you felt was more important and more pertinent, you just went ahead and did it; and wrote to Roy and said, "Look, Roy, it isn't like you said." This was perfectly okay with him because he wasn't imposing his ideas on you; he was trying to get you stimulated enough so that you would find out what was really there.

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Malaria poster in small hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico, December 1941

" your eyes and be looking..."

[Roy Stryker] would write in longhand these long letters in which he would work out for you a complete shooting script on what you should be looking for in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania or in Aroostook County, Maine. He would write in great detail about potato-picking, and what kind of shoes do they wear, and what kind of gloves do they wear, and where do they eat and sleep, and do all sorts of other things. But this was primarily a guide for you to open your eyes and be looking for these things. He wouldn't tell you what to photograph at all, ever.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

At the Vermont state fair, Rutland, September 1941

"...everything that produced this woman with her three hundred cans was important and essential..."

I don't think that either Roy or -- I don't really know because we've never really discussed it directly -- either Roy or [Rex] Tugwell ever thought of the Historical Section as being kind of a public relations outfit for the Resettlement Administration. We sometimes ran into this kind of feeling among the Farm Security people that we'd meet in the field, who were there ready and waiting for us to show us all the nice things that they were doing for us to take pictures of so that newspapers would print them and show what a good job Farm Security was doing. But I don't think that that was ever the idea that Roy had, nor Tugwell. I think both of them had the kind of historical sense of the period that we think of Churchill having a sense of history, and other people. They felt that the country was going through an important historical period, and one phase of it, one part of it, was what Resettlement was doing. But the Resettlement Administration really was a symptom of all that was going on in the country and many other kinds of things and, "If we do this, if we photograph that, if we document that, we have... we will have been documenting something which is symptomatic of everything that's happening in the whole country during this period." And Roy, as soon as he got his hands on this thing, felt that it wasn't enough to photograph the canning project in such and such a county in South Carolina, but everything that had to do with conditions in this particular county which created the conditions which made it necessary for Farm Security to come in and do this kind of job; everything that went before; the possibilities of what would come after; what kind of people live in this place; why do they need Farm Security here; what made the people they way they are, and everything began to be involved in this. An old woman, for example, an old Negro woman who had been awarded a blue ribbon, or some sort of prize in the county fair in which Farm Security was participating because she had produced so many hundreds and hundreds of cans of rutabaga, or whatever it might be, was not just an ordinary woman. She was a woman, perhaps, who was the daughter of an ex-slave who lived in this county, and this county had a history, and this county had an economy; and everything around this woman, everything that produced this woman with her three hundred cans was important and essential, including the kind of clothes she wore, including the kind of pictures that hung on the wall in her house, including the kind of church she went to, including the kind of school her children went to, and so on and so forth. Once you begin to examine her and her connection with Farm Security in this way, then it becomes a portrait of America in that sense.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

In the tenement district, Brockton, Massachusetts, December 1940

"...the accent and the inclination and the songs and everything having to do with it..."

...s with any job that you really enjoy and like doing, it never seems like a job, and this was certainly true with us. I felt that I was learning and I was studying for myself what I wanted to find out, and it so happened that what I wanted to find out and what I was studying was just what my job expected of me, and I can't think of a better arrangement. When I would go to cover a county fair, for example, a county fair; well, I didn't know much about county fairs. I had always been a city boy and it was all great and new and wonderful to me. And Irene and I would sit down and work out shooting scripts after going the first day, and they would be the most detailed and, for us, exciting things that we could imagine. Not only what was displayed at the fair and all the products, and so on, but the people and what they wore, and how they looked, and what kind of tobacco they used, and the kids, and the language. And frequently we would get into things which were non-photographic but which were fascinating to us, such as the accent and the inclination and the songs and everything having to do with it, which to me was a revelation and was fascinating. And I was studying, I was learning from this and documenting everything I possibly could because I felt that this was what Roy would want also -- that it would be valuable for the file. I think that, aside from that, speaking for myself, I felt that I was part of an organization which was basically interested in the cultural values of America, which had nothing to do with politics but had to do with the American tradition, with the bad things, the good things, the difficulties, the problems, the joys and inspirations and everything that went with it. And it could be a tight little Jewish community someplace in Colchester, which we covered, including the synagogues and everything that went with it, or it could be a horse show at a county fair in New Hampshire somewhere. It was all part of what was making the United States and what the United states had come from, and this was the exciting thing for us. Through these travels and the photographs I got to love the United States more than I could have in any other way.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Trucks outside a starch factory, Caribou, Aroostook County, Maine, October 1940

"...breaking the ice and getting friendly..."

I can't remember any disagreeable incidents ever, except with police and that kind of thing, but not with people having their pictures taken. I don't know, but I suppose each one of us developed a technique for approaching people before we took any pictures. And I think it was very helpful to have Irene along. I think many photographers found this helpful, to have a companion along when you are working. It frees you a little bit with the camera. You're not doing both things at the same time, making contact and taking pictures. Frequently, after breaking the ice and getting friendly and the people understanding what you were doing, I was able to do a lot of things that I wouldn't have been able to do alone because Irene kept the conversation going and kept people interested while I was working away furiously. I can't remember ever having had any difficulty about people not wanting to have their picture taken.

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Near White Plains, Georgia, c. 1941

"I didn't place them that way but they were that way..."

I didn't always move people around and put them where I wanted to because I thought it would make a good composition. But I think that I was always looking for compositions that already existed as such in shooting. There was a photograph in the "Bitter Years" show, for example, of three bedraggled children standing together looking a little bit downcast, and it's a trinity, in a sense, it's kind of a triptych. Well, they just happened to be standing that way. Of course, there were eight or ten shots that I had taken before and after, but this was what I was looking for. I didn't place them that way but they were that way and I think that this was one of the things that I was doing more consciously than some of the other photographers. I think that it probably shows through the body of work that I left.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

At the Vermont state fair, Rutland, 'backstage' at the 'girlie' show, September 1941

" expression of the essence of what you are seeing."

...a documentary photograph is an expression of the essence of what you are seeing.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

A square with old houses in an old fishing village, Stonington, Connecticut, November 1940

"We tried not to get in people's way..."

IRENE DELANO: I think that we had tremendous respect for the people that we were visiting, and we felt that they were doing us a great favor to let us be there, really. And we were also, I think, very aware of their poverty, in many cases, and their tough circumstances and so were terribly almost oversensitive, I think to that kind of thing. We tried to be as inconspicuous and innocuous as possible in the sense that we didn't want to interfere with them, and we just realized that nothing good could happen unless they understood that we were not doing it in any kind of mocking way, and this was very difficult at times. It was difficult to get it across. I don't know, I don't think it's anything special that we did, but rather what we tried not to do. We tried not to get in people's way; we tried to make them understand that we were tremendously sympathetic with their problem.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Child of an FSA borrower, in front of their house, Puerto Rico, December 1941 or January 1942

"...times when I just felt so badly..."

I always have liked to travel around and we didn't ever seem to have... I mean we had problems like not being able to find a place at night, you know, that kind of thing, but I guess I was really too young to care about those kinds of comforts, you know. That didn't make much of an impression on me. Oh, sometimes we stayed in lousy places, and sometimes not, but I don't remember ever feeling that we were being put upon in any way in terms of our own living. As a matter of fact, I've always felt just the opposite. I felt so rich, and we were staying in hotels and motels and all these things all the time, and each night was a new experience, you know, what we were going to find. But coming back to the relations with the people that Jack was photographing, you know, it varied tremendously. We found for the most part that we did best when we were alone, that if we went, for instance, with an agent, a representative of one of the government agencies who had some dealings with the people wherever we were on one thing or another, if you had a very good person, a person who really cared about the people he was dealing with, it would be very helpful because it would be a natural way to go to visit them. If it was the kind of person that people didn't respect, or didn't like particularly, or felt uncomfortable with, then we just had a terrible time. We would give up and come back on our own. I think, possibly, it helped to have a woman along on many of these things. Particularly when we'd just stop, we'd see something and we'd just stop, and just the mother and the children would be at home. Well, it was easier, I think, to have a woman to talk to her than if Jack had had to. Then she would immediately have felt a little more uncomfortable, or wondered if he was an inspector, or one thing and another. Whereas having a woman along, I think, helped in those situations. At other times I know that I just couldn't stand it and Jack had to push me. I mean times when I just felt so badly, particularly in the South when we would be in Negro communities, and there I... The people many times didn't like it, but they just didn't know who we were and what we were trying to do, but they couldn't say no to us. I remember one time in particular we passed a little church out in the country and there was a service going on, and it just looked absolutely marvelous, you know. It was just a little tiny white church on a little hillside and we stopped and went and we could see the look of resentment in all those people, I mean the attitude, "You won't even leave us alone now." And I said, "Jack, let's get out of here. I'm not going in." And he said, "You are going in and you're going to take that flash right up to the front and you're going to do just what I tell you." Well, I'd never seen him get that way with me. I said, "You can't do it. Leave them alone, leave them alone. They don't want us here." And he gritted his teeth, you know, and said, "Take that flash up to the front and put it where I tell you. You don't like it now, but we've got to get it." And I'll never forget walking down that aisle. We had asked; they didn't answer. They didn't say we could come in, and of course they didn't say we could not come in. And I walked right up to the front of that church and shot the flash off and, you know, held it so that it would go off in one area of the church. I came out of that place just shaking, and so was Jack. But he thought that the use of the picture, I mean in that case what carried us was that we felt that the use of the pictures would warrant us acting that way in that particular circumstance. And that kind of thing did happen from time to time, but not in the majority of cases. I mean you couldn't stand to do it, you couldn't go and force yourself on people in that way...

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Street corner, Brockton, Massachusetts, January 1941

" understanding of what the whole community was like..." had to have your own opinion, you had to have an understanding of what the whole community was like, the whole social structure...

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Near the waterfront, New Bedford, Massachusetts, January 1941

"...very much like concentration camps."

JACK DELANO: ...this was part of Roy's idea, that somebody ought to cover the migrant agricultural worker trail from Florida to Aroostook County, Maine, right up the Coast. Which is what we did. We started in southern Georgia and covered the migrant workers' turpentine camps, tomato-picking, all kinds of other vegetable crops; we kept on going up the trail of the migrant workers from state to state, through Delaware -- where there was a lot of truck farming going on and they were bringing agricultural workers from the South, living in barracks-type buildings, barbed wire fences around. They looked very much like concentration camps.

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Land and utility municipal housing project, Ponce, Puerto Rico, December 1941

"...not all Americans are alike."

IRENE DELANO: thing we were talking about before is about poor people being generally warm human people, and I think we found that to be true. That was a thing that unified people everywhere. And also to me it was a tremendous revelation of the tremendous variety of nationalities and the cultures within cultures -- the culture of a migratory worker as against someone from a New England town. All that kind of thing was completely new to me and just absolutely fascinating -- to see how much the environment of a particular community affected the kind of people who lived in it, that not all Americans are alike.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Farm in the vicinity of Wallagrass, Aroostook County, Maine, October 1940

" just seemed so terribly rich to me..."

...going back to the States in recent years now I just find it so wealthy; I find the United States so rich. For instance, in New England -- last summer I went all the way up to Vermont and through Massachusetts and northern New York State, and everywhere it just seemed so terribly rich to me, after living here, you know. In the years when we were traveling so intensively for Farm Security in New England it didn't seem to me that that was true. Of course, it wasn't true then.

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Landscape on the Jackson farm, vicinity of White Plains, June 1941

"... in every phase of the way our people lived..."

JACK DELANO: Roy's outlook on the use of the photographs... he didn't have any specific plans about how these pictures ought to be pushed and used and made available, but in the back of his mind was the idea that somebody was going to do something with these things, and therefore we ought to have this, and we ought to have this, and we've got to have this, and we've got to have this. For instance, he would even talk about pictures of privies; we've got to have pictures of all kinds of privies -- two-story privies, one-story privies, brick ones, big ones, all kinds. Well, this attitude is symbolic of the kind of thing he was thinking about in every phase of the way our people lived, the kind of buttons -- we've got to have pictures of all the kinds of shoes, every imaginable kind of tool that people use in their work, every imaginable kind of clothes that people wear in the various parts of our country.

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Grain elevators near Amarillo, Texas, March 1943

"...a search for the heart of the American people."

I think the great thing about the Farm Security photographs, regardless of the artistic merit of any individual photograph, is that they were all being done in a search for the heart of the American people. This is what we were skirting all the time and feeling the pulse of the nation through its people.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Sideshow at the Vermont state fair, Rutland, September 1941

"We were documentary photographers..."

There was a difference between what FSA was doing and photojournalism. We were not photojournalists in the sense that we were producing something that was going to appear in a newspaper or in a magazine. We were documentary photographers, which is quite different. It means that we were providing material for somebody to use in all kinds of ways that they might want to, or need to use them. Also, I can't remember too well the kind of photography that was being done in magazines at that time. But I do remember that within a short time after the Farm Security photography started to be used, its influence on the magazines was very fast. Pretty soon the influence of Farm Security's kind of photography was being felt in the newspapers and in the magazines.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Commuters who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Massachusetts, January 1941

"...saying something decent about the dignity of mankind, the dignity of human beings..."

...we weren't working for posterity and we didn't have this in mind, although we thought that what we were doing was going to help some people somewhere for a long time to come. I think there was another thing which was not as specific which we felt we were doing and which we hoped would be reflected in our photographs, and that is that I think we all had a respect for human beings and we were hoping that in our pictures we were saying something decent about the dignity of mankind, the dignity of human beings, and it didn't matter who they were. And, although Congressmen and newspapers might get riled up about dirty little children with bare feet, and so on, we felt that when we looked at the kids, we felt that they were wonderful human beings and that no matter who it was, this was a human being of great dignity and this we hoped would be reflected in all the pictures we did. And of course, people were the basic element in everything that we were doing.

File:Federal housing Yauco Puerto Rico fsac.1a34039u.jpg

Federal housing project on the outskirts of the town of Yauco, Puerto Rico, January 1942

Photos by Jack Delano for the Farm Security Administration (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


Marylinn Kelly said...

The FSA Photo Project achieved its goal of finding the heart of the American people. The photographers understood there was connection between the people they met and the minutiae of their lives; our details do tell our stories. I would be heartened to see your revisiting of this work and these times displayed for a wider audience. All the lessons we will ever need wait for us in the past.

TC said...

Thank you Marylinn, I feel exactly the same way about this.

And it appears that makes a sum total of exactly two of us.

John Sarsgard said...

Make that three of us. I wonder what such a project today would find about the heart of the American people. Would it be found at Walmart?

Curtis Roberts said...

I think I first heard the silly, but communicative, expression, "me three" (following an utterance of "me too") in a Three Stooges short when I was a child. I guess I need to say "me four" about this. This is really extraordinary material. Regarding John's question, I don't think contemporary America's heart would be found at Wal-Mart, but that isn't meant either to disparage or praise Wal-Mart. I do think that modern technology tools, such as computers and internet communications, which have the potential to connect us deeply, can have exactly the opposite effect and are creating a nation of people isolated from each other in "self-selecting" situations. One thing I don't like about the new portable reading devices, such as the Kindle, is that they make all books look alike. I understand why they are practical (I met a person who was going to Africa for several months and she told me that having a Kindle saved her many pounds of additional luggage weight), but they erase the minutiae that Mariynn mentions.

Ed Baker said...

here is a neat site re:
The Dust Bowl

and pictures of the exact cloud / day of it

Black Sunday, April 14, 1935

I was thinking that, just maybe, all of our Atomic Bomb testing might have caused the Cloud (clouds)

but as near as I can place first A-bomb OPEN AIR testing was 1944

I think Oppenheimer was year in Nazi German in 1935.

ever hear his 1945 radio speech...?

Ed Baker said...

pee est:

check out Florence's (and the others' stories/'membrances, here:

my dad once said

"we were so poor four of us shared one pair of shoes."

Ed Baker said...

oppppsss I forgot the link:

(who ever said "poets are smart" ?)



yes, "the detail and deeper meaning of everything . . . open your eyes and be looking" ---


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, edge of black pine branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

systems of previous painting,
itself drawn from those

as its focus, look of object
its blackness, radiance

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
circular green pine on tip of sandspit

Curtis Roberts said...

Steve, I really love today's poem and vision. It's hard to pick out a single line/thought/image. They're all so great. I'm glad I checked in again on this highly disordered day.

TC said...

Thanks, everyone.

John, your question --

I wonder what such a project today would find about the heart of the American people. Would it be found at Walmart?

-- has been in my mind too.

And it did come up also in Richard Roud's 1965 interview with the Delanos (in Puerto Rico, where they had by then settled, and where Jack was doing great work in music and the writing of children's books):

JACK DELANO: Well, I think it is a great shame that the project didn't continue, of course, because, as Irene said, there were a certain number of years during which we were all working, and then it all stopped. What in the files represents the work of those years. After that there isn't anything. But think of what has been happening in the United States since 1945, since the War, after the War, the transformation and all kinds of social movements that have been happening in the United States since the War. This would have driven Roy mad, insane to cover all this. I mean, our whole . . . if nothing more than our attitude toward science and space and the effect that it has had on the whole country, just as one symbolic thing, one example. What's been happening in education in the United States in ten years is another example of compete revolution in thinking about all these things which reflects itself in attitudes and human behavior; and in a way the industrial revolution in the United States after the War with plastics and transistor radios, computers, and all of these things. These are the things that have been changing in American life since the War. These are the kinds of things that properly would be fields in which the project would be working -- in which we would all be working. Well, nobody has been except as reflected in newspaper stories and other things which are in somebody's file somewhere about the country but never from this point of view of the project. I'm just saying this because I think it's tragic that the project did just simply cut off and stop when the country didn't stop and all the things that we were looking at didn't stop. They continued developing in an extraordinary way. But your question about how the file could be used . . . I remember Roy was not only a collector of photographs, but he collected all kinds of things, including people, and Alice collected buttons, but Roy -- this collector's attitude and this idea that everything is useful and you've got to have it, and if you don't need it now, you'll need it later, or somebody else is going to need it. This was something that he was always impressing on us, too. Roy had a great admiration for Sears, Roebuck catalogues, for example. He felt that they should be kept and that they were very valuable -- Sears, Roebuck or Montgomery Ward's catalogue of thirty or forty years ago is an extraordinary historical document of what dress was like at that time, and appliances, and automobiles and parts, and all kinds of things. In the same way, the file will be valuable as the years go by, in this same sense also. Even now it is valuable in that sense because of the material contained in it about social mores of the time, about . . . well, things have changed already considerably just in these twenty-odd years and the files gives us such a vivid picture of what things were like at that time, not only in the depressed areas but in all the other things we covered.



Thanks for this last note on things from Jack Delano -- who IS doing anything like this these days? And Curtis, thank you for YOUR note on 8.14. . . .

aditya said...

Its an entirely wonderful stretch of memories. And by the end you get a feeling you gotta be with these people at their places wearing their brains and skins and running by their pulses and seeing and sizing things and people up with their senses.

TC said...

Aditya, your words remind me of Keats' dictum that for the poetic to happen, we must feel it on the pulse. I think that's the beauty of the art and skill and effort -- and the historical moment (and for that matter let's not forget the Kodachrome) -- enabling these photographers. They redeem a time we are unconsciously accustomed to thinking of as happening in black & white by filling it with colour, flooding our senses, allowing us to feel it on the pulse.

And now the memories are returned to us, the distances are diminished, and we can, for moments at a time, enter into these people and places, as you say we must...