The 1930s were a formative period for documentary photography in the United States. The twin phenomena of the Great Depression and the emergence of a militant workers’ movement gave photographers interested in the working class a surfeit of material to shoot. Moreover, changes in camera technology meant that portable and relatively inexpensive cameras could be taken almost anywhere. Photography clubs multiplied; and shared darkrooms meant that as both vocation and avocation photography became affordable and truly popular. From the standpoint of the social historian, though, the most important intervention was institutional: starting in 1935 a government agency, the Farm Security Administration, began hiring photographers and dispatching them across the country to document the lives of ordinary people. Some of the most prominent visual artists of the period lent their talent to this endeavor – Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein to name a few – and at the project’s conclusion a decade later they had captured more than 170,000 images.[1]

The size and scope of this archive forms something close to a comprehensive visual record of the era and has provided scholars with a seemingly endless source for books and articles on the documentary tradition. Yet although working class themes stand out boldly in these photographs, relatively few document the American factory, and for the most part the vast scholarly literature on the FSA photographers downplays the workplace. In fact, if any theme dominates the corpus of work shot by these artists-cum-public servants it is human tenacity and dignity in the face of the dispossession and hardships of the Great Depression. Nowhere is this more evident than in the era’s most iconic image, Dorothea Lange’s portrait “Migrant Mother” (Figure 1[2]); it also is clearly seen in Evans’ documentary work among sharecroppers in the rural South (Figure 2 and Figure 3[3]) and in many of the now classic images captured in the mid-1930s by non FSA photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White (Figure 4[4]).


1. These now reside at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The collection is known as the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives; the vast majority of the images have been digitized and are publicly available.

2. Known widely as “Migrant Mother,” the actual title of this photograph, and the others in the series that Lange shot in a California migrant labor camp in 1936, is “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” Source: Library of Congress.

3. Walker Evans, “Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama,” Source: Library of Congress, and “ Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama,” Source: Library of Congress.

4. Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, “Maiden Lane, Georgia,” You Have Seen Their Faces (New York: Modern Age Books, 1937). More information about this collaborative project available here and here.