Figure 19. Dorothea Lange, "Shipyard Shift Change, Richmond, CA, 1942.”

By all accounts, government photographers were given strict instructions during the war. Unlike the more open agenda they freely pursued under the FSA in the 1930s, they now worked in service to the state to produce propaganda. Roy Stryker, the mercurial impresario who headed the FSA’s photographic endeavors, battled to preserve the project in the face of bureaucratic pressures, arguing that “the pictures are the thing,” and that art needed to co-exist with propaganda.[1] Many of the federal photographers managed to balance these competing imperatives or – to put it another way – some of the more talented photographers were able accept the new assignment of documenting the home front and episodically rise to the occasion with images that encapsulated the praxis of sentient labor. The standout example in this regard is a shot of a shift changing at the giant Kaiser shipyards near Oakland, California (see Figure 19).

The spontaneous jubilance and comradery displayed by the women here points away, radically, from the sterile posed propaganda of Rosie the Riveter. The bold humanity and emotional content of the photo also stands in stark contrast to the simple technics of industrial reality captured, however powerfully, by Delano and Vachon. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of images of this quality shot by superb but relatively unknown photographers exist in the FSA archives. Historians of industry and labor, especially those interested in glimpses of work redeemed from alienation, will find much of value as they explore and excavate this rich source.


1. The tension between art and propaganda within the FSA is handled sensitively by John Raeburn in A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of Thirties Photography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 146-151.