Category Archives: American Document 1935-1944

Walker Evans Bethelem Graveyard and Steelmill Pennsylvania 1935

Reading Images by Walker Evans in the US Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration Archival File, 1935-1938

To evaluate a body of creative work produced by an artist during a specific period in time, an understanding of concurrent social, cultural, political, and economic conditions is imperative. The nature of the photographic materials produced by American photographer, Walker Evans (1903-1975), during his tenure with the United States Resettlement Administration [RA]/Farm Security Administration’s [FSA]1 Historical Section (1935-1938) provokes the opportunity for consideration of several presumable though dissimilar narratives.  At the intersection of the Great Depression and the Roosevelt Administration’s ascent to power (1933), Evans fulfilled a role as a photographer employed under the auspices of a bureaucratic agency. During such devastatingly catastrophic socio-economic times, Evans was wise to secure and accept stable employment with the RA/FSA. All the while Evans, who had already defined his vocation as an artist and achieved recognition for his craft by contemporary arbiters of culture, contended with the challenge of maintaining his own aesthetic within a government engineered apparatus. Given Evans’ lengthy career, the years 1935-1938 may appear to be a transient moment in time. However, they were among his most prolific, and the types of images and narratives he produced for the files that he created for the RA/FSA impart an important window into further understanding his character.

The type of photographic documentation sought by authorities within the RA/FSA was punctuated by a necessity for publicity materials that would serve to confirm the validity of the Roosevelt Administrations’ New Deal programs and cement greater constituents. An aggressive emphasis was placed on the RA/FSA’ Historical Section to produce materials that illuminated the successes of recovery efforts throughout rural America. For Evans and other photographers associated with the RA/FSA, the precise syntax for production of images was filtered through a lens of prescriptive measures and subject to the largesse of the Roosevelt administration’s dissemination strategy.   Allan Sekula has made an appeal to socially conscious viewers and practitioners of the arts to critically assess the close historical partnership of documentary artists and social democrats, arguing that there is much to be learned from our “Progressive Era and New Deal predecessors”.2 Between 1935-1938, the files created by Evans for the RA/FSA Historical Section offer much enlightenment on how he exercised his artistic practice in the face of extreme social, political, and historical circumstances, and how he managed to deliver his vision of America within this framework.  Although Evans’ license to freedom of creative aesthetic was conditioned by a framework, the images he produced invoke three worthy narratives for discussion: art, social documentary, and propaganda.

Walker Evans the Person
Among the group of photographers employed by the RA/FSA Historical Section, Evans was recognizably the most skilled, and the group was enigmatically shaped by the individual capabilities of the participants. Irrespective of the Roosevelt Administration’s influence on the Historical Section, the individual traits and personal histories attributed to the photographers offer an important context within which to evaluate the successive narratives produced by the photographers. In the case of Evans, who by 1935 had already been accoladed for his achievements in the world of contemporary photography,  a level of leniency and independency within the RA/FSA administration was accorded to him. Peter Turner has aptly described the nature and outcome of Evans’ typically artistic character operating within a typically government administration:

“It was a way for the artist to do the work he wanted with a steady pay check, and he supposedly did not have any real regard for the desires of his supervisor. The  photographs‘ context was one of   factual documentation, but in truth they are  examples of Evans doing what he was best at  distilling the American  experience. The wilful individualism of Evans was contrary to the other FSA workers, as he was an artist/photographer, and as such, he could not fully comply with the directions given by a supervisor.”3

Throughout his tenure with the RA/FSA, Evans was inspired by an intense desire to artistically explore the American vernacular and independent beyond bureaucratic toleration; his images bearing more artistic elements than reforming. Unsurprisingly, he was asked to leave the Historical Section when a reduction in government funding provided the opportunity. Evans’ artistic aesthetic and opposition to conformity evolved  as a consequence of his exposure to various social networks.  Evans received his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, during his youth – a time that was punctuated by numerous emotional and personal upheavals.  His earliest amateur photographs reveal a sense for capturing people unaware, and the posture of a covert photographer would later resonate in his RA/FSA photographic materials.  It wasn’t until the late 1920s that Evans began to fully embrace his artistic vocation.  Coming of age during a time that was shaped by post-World War I economic prosperity,  Evans indulged in a sojourn abroad to Paris, in 1926.   Belinda Rathbone writes that Evans went to Europe with the aspirations of becoming a writer, and sought out such American luminaries as: Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, T.S. Eliot, and Man Ray. Rathbone highlights that Evans was a persona non grata among them.4  During this period, Evans experienced an epiphany and channeled his creative energy into a renewed interest in American culture. Evans felt no disdain for his shortcomings as a writer, and classical literature, particularly the works of Gustav Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, and James Joyce, would remain a defining influence on his creative aesthetic. Evans stated that he made no distinction between literary and visual artists, and that the individual images and the fusion of the separate images into books resemble the units and flow of a row, especially the work of Flaubert: “I know now that Flaubert’s aesthetic is absolutely mine…his realism and naturalism both, and his objectivity of treatment; the non appearance of author, the non subjectivity.”5  The inspiration behind Evans’ vision of America and aesthetic would eventually be evidenced in the RA/FSA Historical Section’s content.

Upon Evans’ return the United States, Evans married himself to the enrichment his vocation as an artist, and soon acquainted himself with significant literary figures, artists, and socialites. The likes of James Agee, Hart Crane, Paul Strand, Ben Shahn, Lincoln Kirstein, and Charles Flato were among his social circle, and his aesthetic was energized by their influence. Evans’ desire to explore and comprehend colloquial American culture found a medium for expression in photography, where the observer and the observed met at eye-level. At the intersection of Evans’ maturation and recognition of his artistic vocation, the dramatic effects of the Great Depression commanded unforeseen socio-economic conditions upon the American people. Conditions were further exacerbated by dramatic shifts in politics culminating in the establishment of the Roosevelt Administration (1933-1945).  Evans would soon embark on a precarious exploration of his aesthetic within a new polity that facilitated unforeseen opportunities for creative expression in the form of New Deal agencies.

Shifts in Political Power: The Roosevelt Administration and the New Deal
Positioning Evans within the socio-political framework in which he functioned between 1935-1938 enhances the capacity to comprehend the narratives he produced. The rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Administration to power in 1933 was laden with controversy. Conservatives and advocates of limited government protested against the institutionalization of federal policies aimed at cementing a social welfare state.  Although former president Herbert Hoover’s decline in popularity was largely conditioned by the great economic crash (Black Monday, October 29, 1929), his policies also reveal tendencies towards the centralization of government power and stabilization of social welfare state. America was in a period of transition and Evans was there as both observer and participant.

During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration provided relief to economic crisis pervasive throughout American society in the form of New Deal agencies. Policies and governmental structures postured in socialism and engineered by the Roosevelt Brains Trust also supported the creative arts in unprecedented ways. Between 1933 and 1943, various government programs sponsored and encouraged the proliferation of the creative arts, employing artists, musicians, writers, actors, filmmakers, photographers, and dancers.6

The RA (1935-1937) was among the New Deal agencies established to relieve economic strife, and the Historical Section was created to employ photographers whose task was to function as a documentary network in the service of the Roosevelt Administration. Evans’ employment with the RA’s Historical Section offered him an opportunity to financially survive during the Great Depression, and to participate in one of the most controversial government supported creative programs in American history.The RA was the precursor to the more commonly known FSA (1937-1942). The RA was headed by Rexford Tugwell, an influential economic advisor within the Roosevelt Administration, and was established in response to the ineffectiveness of the New Deal’s main agency, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration [AAA]. The AAA had concentrated on the interests of country’s largest farm producers, all of whom had arresting influence in Congress due to the domineering positions they held within major farm organizations. The aim of the RA was to relocate seemingly hopeless rural Americans who had been subject to the effects of the dust bowl storms to either better lands or planned suburban communities. The RA also offered services to sharecroppers and tenant farmers who otherwise would have had few prospects for relief. By 1937, the RA had proven to be negligent in facilitating the relief effort, and Congress passed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, thus creating the FSA.7 Both the RA and FSA proved to be ineffective and financially disastrous operations. All the while, between 1935-1938, the Historical Section exhibited utmost efficiency in the ability to document and support the successes of the Roosevelt administration’s policies.  During this time Evans created a wealth of documents suggestive of the struggles he contended with and the aesthetic he so desired to explore. The principal force behind Evans’ term and the vigour with which the RA/FSA’s Historical Section functioned was Roy Stryker.

The RA/FSA, Roy Stryker and Walker Evans
Tugwell’s impetus to create an Historical Section within the RA was driven by an awareness of the potential agency illustrative materials could have on both Congress and the public at large. Stryker, a colleague of Tugwell versed in economics and the communicative power of photography, was hired to direct the Historical Section. Stryker’s vision of American society had been influenced by the last days of the greater American frontier. He had been raised in the primitive atmosphere of Southwestern cattle country, was fluent in American agricultural history, and taught economics at Columbia. Stryker had also read Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal essay, On the Significance of the Frontier in American History. The work’s fundamental arguments imbued his vision. In the midst of the Depression, Stryker’s portrait of America was one that included “all aspects of American rural life, with an emphasis on what had gone wrong: deforestation, soil erosion, migrant fruit pickers, and hungry children”.8  Stryker’s vision for the Historical Section went beyond the realm of simply satisfying the demands of public relations. Under Stryker’s aegis, a sensitive and contemporary portrait of rural America was authored by a talented and mindful cohort of individuals that included Evans among them. A discussion on Stryker’s authorship of the RA/FSA file, his relationship to politics, documentary photography, and print media networks exceeds the context of this discussion, though it is pertinent to note that he commissioned and prescribed nearly all the documents created for the RA/FSA in the form of shooting scripts.9

Under the auspices of Stryker,  the Historical Section of the RA/FSA produced one of the most important and substantial social history archives in American history.10  Stryker revered Evans’ distinguished artistic capabilities, and hired him almost immediately, noting that Evans was “one of the best photographers in the country for the job of photographically documenting American history”.11 Evans was given the title of senior photographer and the highest salary. Between 1935-1938, Evans and Stryker clashed on numerous fronts; Evans abhorred Stryker’s demands for scripted production and Stryker looked disapprovingly upon Evans’ low level of productivity. Evans adopted a passive aggressive stance towards his director’s incessant formulaic instructions and continued to pursue his assignments with obvious independence. Evans was the first photographer to be dismissed when budgetary difficulties arose, and it is more than likely that Evans’ dismissal came as a relief for both parties. Their lack of camaraderie and disparate interests in the Historical Section’s purpose were markedly clear.12  Alan Trachtenburg has commented on Evans’ term with the RA/FSA and noted that “Evans found a way of returning the image to everyday culture, employing what he called documentary style in the service of a psychology of form”.13 The nuanced narratives enabled by Evans undoubtedly offer a deeper understanding into the world of an artist whose aesthetic was subject to engagement with contemporary societal conditions and government bureaucracy.

Images as Art
During the twentieth century Evans achieved international recognition as a fine art photographer, and his work has been firmly positioned in the canon of fine art photography since then. On the contrary, the RA/FSA file has assumed a complex position, stirring debates in the fields of history, sociology, documentary, and visual art.  When evaluating the narrative of images produced by Evans as art, it is necessary to bear in mind the aforementioned facts and the context of the Depression era  America in which he worked.  Evans unquestionably viewed the RA/FSA position as a practical means to insure both his artistic and personal livelihood. Although Evans acknowledged that his work would be used for publicizing and legitimizing the Roosevelt administration, the period 1935-1938 may be conceptualized as a an expression of his subversive, artistic goals. He was given the status of senior photographer, accorded ample financial resources, given leniency from his superior, and produced images to satisfy his aesthetic vision.  Assessment of the files produced by Evans reveal the work of a self-conscious and motivated artist who prioritized his own goals before he adhered to that of Stryker’s. Interestingly, Stryker was fully aware of Evans’ attitude towards his creative aesthetic and the RA/FSA:

“Evans was to disappear for months at a time, keep no clear records of where he had been or was going, and finally to reappear with a small number of the finest photographs ever taken. For two years Evans was allowed to set his own pace and the results certainly justified the patience. No one ever took better  photographs than Walker Evans. On the other hand, Evans’ approach to photography made life difficult in a government bureaucracy.”14

Evans’ attitude reveals a definitive level of artistic independence, and the images he produced reveal a firm disinterest in the reportage and formalist representation styles evidenced in the works of other RA/FSA photographers. The most obvious element evidenced in the files which corroborates the art narrative in Evans’ work is the sense of distanced frontality, where objects, buildings, and persons are seen in direct and unflattering assuredness. Furthermore, the images are artistic rather than reforming, and communicate ideological observations on an array of conditions (industrial, rural, domestic, commercial, recreational). Jack F. Hurley has also presented arguments that support Evans’ work with the RA/FSA as art. Hurley notes that Evans consistently produced outstanding photographs which helped set the standard of excellence that affected anyone who joined the Historical Section, and this standard consisted of his work being “consistently of the very highest technical quality carrying an unmistakable message”.15 Evans’ headstrong practice of his aesthetic produced a number of files that strongly invoke the art narrative: the Erosion file, the Bethlehem-Pennsylvania file, and the Charleston-South Carolina file.

Although the art narrative in the RA/FSA file has been subject to controversial debate, the images produced by Evans indubitably substantiate the claim. A close examination of the Erosion file reveals Evans’ aesthetic and stance of artistic independence. The image Erosion Near Jackson, Mississippi (1936)16 is indicative of the greater file. The image is stark and frontal without an imposing style intruding between the image and the viewer.  Stuart Kidd has remarked on Evans’ Erosion file stating that he “did not follow Stryker’s directives to photograph erosion, he produced formal studies of configurations of damaged land, notable for their shapes, line, and patterns”.17 The image Bethlehem Graveyard and Steelmill, Pennsylvania (1935) is exemplar of the file he created while on assignment in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The image is remarkable for its tonality, and in the context of the art narrative, its greater value lies in communicating Evans’ anonymity and refusal to endorse Stryker’s prescriptions.


Bethlehem Graveyard and Steelmill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 1935

In the Charleston-South Carolina file, Frame House, Charleston, South Carolina (1935) further supports Evans’ position as an artist and his images as art. The image, like other images contained in the Charleston-South Carolina file, transmits Evans’ anonymity; an emphasis on the formal study of architecture is prioritized above the documentation of social conditions concurrent to the times. The aforementioned photographs also embody Evans’ vision to explore the American vernacular in everyday culture.

Although Evans was criticized for the unorthodox approach he took with his RA/FSA assignments, his ability to produce remained unhindered. Evidence of Evans’ art narrative culminated in the form of solo show held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York: Walker Evans: American Photographs (1938). The exhibition was also presented in book format, featuring an influential essay by Lincoln Kirstein. The exhibition was presently independently of the RA/FSA though numerous images were extracted from the file. Stryker later commented that “certainly we had some artists working for us. Walker Evans thought of his work as art, and to prove it, had a one man show at the Museum of Modern Art.”18  The validity of the art narrative is authenticated by the fact that Evans was able to present a solo exhibition featuring images from the RA/FSA file.


Interior of a Coal Miner’s Home with Rocking Chair and Advertisements on Wall, West Virginia, 1935 (RA/FSA image featured in American Photographs Exhibition, 1938)

Images as Social Documentary
The RA/FSA file in its totality may be considered as one part of the greater discourse on documentary photography. Evans position within that discourse may be interpreted by the facts which have already been made evident: Evans, as artist, enabled an art narrative. However, this estimation of his character and the images he produced fails to account for the considerable social documentary narrative that was actualized in several files worthy of attention, namely the Hale County-Alabama and Arkansas files.

Evans’ preoccupation with the quotidian in vernacular American culture included   the documentation of human responses to contemporary social conditions. At the forefront of 1930s documentary practice was the production of the documentary book. Evans social documentary narrative is illuminated by the file for the work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1936, Evans and Agee had originally traveled to Hale County, Alabama to produce an assignment commissioned by Fortune magazine about the lives of white sharecropping families. Stryker granted Evans a necessary leave of absence on the condition that the negatives would become part of the RA/FSA file. The qualitative value of the work was ideologically incompatible with Fortune’s editorial mandate, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the work was published by Houghton Mifflin. Evans’ Hale County-Alabama file became property of the RA/FSA, and thus entered the social documentary narrative. Evans, commenting on the images selected for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, stated:

“some people think that all photography is inherently importunate, particularly that of people where they’re invaded by the camera. I get over that by feeling that it’s  in the great tradition of documentary photography and that it isn’t really harmful.”19

The persuasive qualities of the images found Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stand in sharp contrast to the obvious art narrative illuminated in the Erosion, Bethlehem-Pennsylvania, and Charleston-South Carolina files. Evans’ social documentary narrative  is punctuated by an involved and empathetic expression of the human condition, evidenced by his striking documentation of the lives of the Gudger, Woods, and Ricketts families. Evans’ images in combination with Agee’s text reveal a telling and unusual portrait of agricultural tenancy and New Deal policies in 1930s America. In the face of ubiquitous Depression era hardships, the work reconstructs the personal perspectives of three families in the lowest ebb of the economic ladder. The sharecroppers are unrelieved by New Deal policies ostensibly aimed to alleviate their distress,  and the work is underscored by a sense of beauty in the face tragedy. The quality of beauty is a reoccurring theme in Agee’s text and Evans’ images.20

The qualities of persuasiveness and beauty make Let Us Now Praise Famous Men unique among other concurrently produced documentary books. Evans’ concentrated effort on portraiture in the presence of hardship supports the social documentary narrative. The portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama (1936) is exemplar of the greater Hale County-Alabama file. The portrait reveals Evans’ direct and frontal approach to social documentary and stands as iconic within the canon of 1930s documentary.  It is pertinent to note that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was in contemporaneous production with other documentary books, many of which were produced with the efforts of other RA/FSA photographers.21 William Stott, in his seminal work Documentary Expression and Thirties America, has regarded Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as the apogee of the documentary movement which transpired during the 1930s, stating that the text “culminated the documentary genre and breaks its mold.22 Evans’ empathy towards the human condition is also noticeably evident in the Arkansas file. Evans had been given explicit orders to document the Arkansas flood refugees, and a significant number of his images invoke the sense of a dual tragedy: flood victims who also bear the plight of the African-American experience. The image Negroes in the Lineup for Food at Mealtime in the Camp for Flood Refugees, Forrest City, Arkansas (1937) reveals Evans’ social and moral sensitivity to his subject in an artistically abstract manner. The flood refugees are photographed in profile from torso to just below the knees; their faces not visible. A chipped bowl and an aluminum plate dominate the image, detaching the individuals from the greater context but also emphasizing urgency and the human need for sustenance. Cara Finnegan has remarked on the comprehensive quality of Evans’ image, stating that:”depicting the universal need for sustenance embodied in the hands of black  Americans offered the 1930s equivalent of the poorest of the poor. He does not show their faces, but their need is clear: their bowls are empty, they are hungry.”23

The images in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Arkansas file reveal an obvious social documentary narrative suggestive of the artist’s command in how he publicly exercised both his state of social consciousness and aesthetic.


Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936



Images as Propaganda
Although the images which support the art and social documentary narratives elucidate the elasticity of Evans’ practice, the dominant narrative espoused and disseminated by the RA/FSA was one of propaganda.  The RA/FSA worked vigorously at producing materials that were didactic and illustrative of both Stryker’s vision and the Roosevelt administration’s efficacy. Reports, exhibitions, and countless publications such as Life, Look, and Survey Graphic  featured images produced by the RA/FSA that were subject to government impulses and agenda. The intent of the RA/FSA’s dissemination strategy was purely propagandistic, and subtle advocation of specific responses customary. Although Evans refused to fulfil Stryker’s prescriptions, Evans’ association with the RA/FSA poses a valid reason to explore his practice within the propaganda narrative.

Images from the first major RA/FSA exhibition, held at the San Diego Exposition (1936), were expressed in the form of didactic rhetorical collages designed to substantiate both the RA/FSA’s and the New Deal’s cause. The presence of Evans’ work in this exhibition is a metaphor for the general involuntary posture he took towards the manipulation and dissemination of his work by the RA/FSA.It is perplexing to position Evans within the propaganda narrative given the evidence of the art and social documentary narratives and the fact that the RA/FSA file generally falls under the rubric of both social documentary and propaganda. Perhaps it is most applicable then to examine the images that Evans created directly for Congress and official reports in Washington. The files which reflect documentation of the RA/FSA’s subsistence homestead project efforts (Arthurdale Project file and Westmoreland Project file)  and the Tennessee Flood file are relevant for consideration.


Panel of RA/FSA Exhibition at San Diego Exposition, 1936

Under the New Deal, rural farm colonies and industrial settlements were envisioned as a middle class movement for selected applicants. The projects were ostensibly experimental and utopian, and soon proved to be costly failures in suburban planning. The one experiment which caught public attention was the Arthurdale Project, Reedsville, West Virginia. Financed by Lady Roosevelt and Louis Howe, by the late 1930s it proved to be an expensive failure.24 Given the time period in which Evans’  assignments were given (1935), the manner in which he chose to document both the Arthurdale and Westmoreland projects reveals his disengagement with Washington and the greater goals of the RA/FSA. The images Homes and Land Cultivation, Arthurdale Project, Reedsville, West Virginia (1935) and Westmoreland Project, Westmoreland Pennsylvania (1935) aptly illustrate Evans’ focus. Both images, also exemplar of the files, reveal a concentration on the artistic value of subject, where the mindful juxtaposition of architecture and landscape supersedes the social context.

The Tennessee Flood file is also noteworthy for examination as it marks Evans’ last complete narrative with the RA/FSA. In February of 1937, Evans’ had been sent to  Tennessee to document government relief efforts following the Mississippi Flood . The images The Bessie Levee Augmented with Sand Bags during the 1937 Flood Near Tiptonville, Tennessee (1937) and Farmyard Covered with Flood Waters Near Ridgely, Tennessee (1937) reveal the work of a reflective, disinterested individual whose communing with natural disaster had provoked an opportunity for artistic exploration. Evans’ insistence to produce images incompatible with the RA/FSA’s propagandistic canon led to his dismissal. In March of 1937, when a reduction in budgetary expenditure arose, Evans was the first photographer discharged.25

Images in the Arthurdale Project, Westmoreland Project, and Tennessee Flood files reveal the intellect of an astute artist in command of his aesthetic who rejected the RA/FSA’s desired form of production. Bearing the three narratives outlined, it is opportune to note that Evans’ wrote a handwritten draft memorandum regarding his RA/FSA  position in the spring of 1935, prior to his first assignment. The draft reads:

“Never under any circumstances asked to do anything more than these things.  Mean never make photographic statements for the government or do photographic chores for gov or anyone in gov, no matter how powerful–this is pure record not propaganda. The value and, if you like, even the propaganda  value for the government lies in the record itself which in the long run will prove  an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done. NO POLITICS whatever.”26

As a primary source, the document synthesizes Evans’ awareness of the reality in which he was about to embark, and an awareness of the three narratives he would have to contend with. Evans’ disagreements with Stryker and the type of images he produced were political statements in their own right, and possibly an outward rejection of the Roosevelt administration in its entirety. It is plausible then to interpret Evans dismissal from the RA/FSA as a necessary termination of an artist in residence who was ideologically opposed to his employer. Evans’ propaganda narrative offers a fascinating discourse worthy of further discussion.


Westmoreland Project, Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, 1935

The ascension of a body of work to the status as national treasure does not deter the necessity for discourse. In the case of Evans’ contributions to the RA/FSA file, the complexity of the narratives continues to increasingly accumulate over time. Consideration of Evans’ art, social documentary, and propaganda narratives broadens our understanding of the RA/FSA file, and offers valuable insight into the artist’s personal world during a particular period in time. Consideration of Evans’ identity as an artist, the socio-economic conditions of the Depression era, and the political climate of the Roosevelt administration are essential to further comprehending the narratives.

Evans’ autonomy over his subject matter and aesthetic, his absolute rejection of Stryker’s prescriptions, and the breath of independence with which he continuously worked give both his character and images unique stature within the RA/FSA file. As a consequence, an unusual wealth of narratives are evident offering much to the development of discourse on the RA/FSA file and Evans. Images in the Erosion, Bethlehem-Pennsylvania, and Charleston-South Carolina files substantially reveal the artist’s  narrative while the Hale County-Alabama and Arkansas files reveal the work of a skilled documentarian.  His reluctance to produce accounts of government presence for the Arthurdale, Westmoreland, and Tennessee Flood files reveals his posture towards propagandistic production methods. All the while, Evans exerted his vision of a vernacular American culture within the framework of a bureaucratic agency. Working within a framework of contradictory impulses exacerbated by the conditions of the Depression, Evans balanced his artistic impulses and vision. Between 1935-1938, he produced some of the most important documents in American history and his extraordinary capabilities in the field of photography were revealed.  The narratives presented here have been constructed not as arguments of persuasion but as tools for reading Evans’ work and the RA/FSA file.


[1] Given the inquiry in this essay is confined to the years 1935-1938, the nomenclature used to refer to the Resettlement Administration [RA] (1935-1937) and the Farm Security Administration [FSA] (1937-1942) will collectively be referred to as the RA/FSA.

[2] Allan Sekula, “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation),” in Photography, Current Perspectives, ed. Jerome Liebling (Rochester, NY: Light Impression Corp., 1978), 236.

[3] Peter Turner, The History of Photography (London: Hamlyn, 1987), 103-104.

[4] Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995), 27.

[5] J.A. Ward, American Silences: The Realism of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 145.

[6] Between 1933-1943, a cluster of New Deal arts initiatives, enabled by the Roosevelt Administration, financially supported thousands of creative individuals. Notable initiatives included: the Public Works of Art Project [PWAP], the Works Progress Administration [WPA]‘s Federal Art Project [FAP], the Historical Section of the RA-FSA-OWI, the Federal Writers Project [FWP], and the Federal Theatre Project [FTP]. John Raeborn writes that nearly 70 percent of New Deal agencies employed photographers within their programs and maintained pubic information offices to disseminate their pictures. None of the other agencies matched the visibility the RA-FSA-OWI received. The obvious reason for the RA-FSA-OWI’s visibility was that they employed talented photographers who made arresting pictures that media agencies might publish, whereas those who were employed by other agencies were mostly journeymen content with being employed. See John Raeborn, A Staggering Revolution, A Cultural History of Thirties Photography (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 147.

[7] William S. Leuchtenburg argues that the inefficiency of the RA was the result of both the Roosevelt administration’s experimental planning strategy and the fact that the RA inherited the problems of its predecessor, the Federal Emergency Relief Effort [FERA]. The RA’s inefficiencies ranged from failure to adequately distribute available resources to barely processing a fraction of applicants. The focus of the RA had been to take land that had been exhausted by agricultural practices, lumbering, oil exploration, and drought, and to move 500,000 destitute persons situated within the dust bowl territory (the Southwestern United States). Only 4,441 families were resettled. As the ineffective nature of the RA was made public, Tugwell resigned from his post in 1936. In 1937, Congress passed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, and created the Farm Security Administration [FSA]. The RA transmuted into the FSA, and broader agency was accorded to program administrators. Under the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, the FSA extended rehabilitation loans to farms, granted low-interest, long-term loans to enable selected tenants to buy family farms, aided migrants by establishing migratory labour camps, and amassed an incredible debt.  According to Leuchtenburg, the FSA was the first agency to do anything substantial for the tenant farmer, sharecropper, and the migrant, however, he also points out that its main boast -the impressively high rate of repayment of its loans- suggested that the FSA did not  dig very deeply into the problem of rural poverty. Furthermore, the FSA had no political constituency while its enemies, especially large farm corporations that wanted cheap labour and southern landlords who objected to FSA aid to tenants, had powerful representation in Congress. The FSA’s opponents kept its appropriations so low that it was never able to accomplish anything on a massive scale. See William Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and The New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963), 140-141.

[8]Stryker’s direction of the RA/FSA’s Historical Section was also influenced by his interest in the stabilization of a social welfare state and an awareness of the agency that photographic images carried. In 1925, Stryker had co-authored a text with Tugwell and Thomas Monroe entitled American Economic Life. His contribution was to find visual materials to illustrate the book, and in the course of doing so, he acquired knowledge of social documentary photography from Lewis Hine, who provided him with many of the book’s illustrations. See James Guimond, American Photography and the American Dream (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 110.

[9] An example of a portion of a select shooting scrip written by Stryker in 1936 reads as follows: From R.E. Stryker to All Photographers…Here again, a most interesting set of pictures could be taken, keeping in mind different income groups and different geographical areas…The group activities of various income levels, the organized and unorganized activities of the various income groups (Where can people meet? Both the well-to-do and poor). See Roy E. Stryker and Nancy Wood, In This Proud Land: American 1935-1943, As Seen in the FSA Photographs (Boston: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973), 187.

[10] RA/FSA file is held in the Library of Congress, and is referred to as the FSA/OWI Photograph Collection.  It encompasses the approximately 77,000 images made by photographers working in Stryker’s Historical Section as it existed in a succession of government agencies: the Resettlement Administration (1935-1937), the Farm Security Administration (1937-1942), and the Office of War Information  (1942-1944).

[11] Raeborn provides a critical evaluation of Stryker’s relationship with his photographers, and notes that both Evans and Dorothea Lange repelled Stryker’s hostility towards their artistic independency. Raeborn, A Staggering Revolution, 157.

[12] Years later, Evans described his tenure with the RA/FSA as a “great opportunity to go around freely at the expense of the federal government… and photograph what I saw in this country…I was exploiting the United States government, rather than having them exploit me…If I was asked to do some bureaucratic stupid thing, I just wouldn’t do it…I just photographed like mad whatever I wanted to. I paid no attention to Washington bureaucracy.” See Walker Evans, “Walker Evans, Visiting Artist: A Transcript of His Discussion with Students at the University of Michigan,” in Photography: Essays and Images, ed.  Beaumont Newhall (New York: MoMA, 1980), 315, 317.

[13] Trachtenburg, a scholar in American Studies and prominent specialist on American photography, has published extensively on Evans. His writings have contributed remarkably in the process of promoting Evans as an artist. See Alan Trachtenburg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 289.

[14] Roy Stryker, interview by Richard Doud, Montrose, CO, January 23, 1965. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art.

[15] Jack F. Hurley, Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 48.

[16] All images referred to in this essay are referenced from the Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives,

[17] Stuart Kidd, Farm Security Administration, Photography, The Rural South, and the Dynamics of Image Making 1935-1943 (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 2004), 68.

[18] Stu Cohen, The Likes of Us: America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration (Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, 2009), XX.

[19] William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 283.

[20] James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1939), 202-203.

[21] Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939) by Agee and Evans evolved from an assignment commissioned by Fortune magazine in 1936. Upon completion, the work’s content was deemed visually and ideologically incompatible with Fortune’s, and was subsequently published by the Houghton Mifflin Company in 1939. Contemporaneously produced photo books worthy of note are: You Have Seen Their Faces (1936) by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, Land of the Free (1938) by Archibald Macleish with Lange, Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Shahn, An American Exodus (1939) by Paul S. Taylor and Lange, and 12 Million Black Voices (1941) by Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam.

[22] Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America, 266.

[23] Cara Finnigan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003), 154-155.

[24] Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 136-137.

[25] Although Evans’ contract officially ended in September of 1937, he continued to work as an independent photographer with the RA/FSA until the summer of 1938. His final assignment was the New York, New York file. The Historical Section of the RA/FSA (which later became the Office of War Information [OWI] 1942-1944) continued to use Evans’ work in multifarious efforts directed at substantiating both New Deal policies and the United States war effort.

[26] Jerry L. Thompson and John T. Hill, eds., Walker Evans at Work (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971), 238.


Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1939.

Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940. New York: The Noonday Press, 1989.

Bezner, Lili Corbus. Photography and Politics in America From the New Deal into the Cold War. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Cohen, Stu. The Likes of Us: America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration. Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2009.

Curtis, James. Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Dixon, Penelope. Photographers of the Farm Security Administration: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983.

Evans, Walker. Walker Evans: American Photographs. New York: Doubleday, 1938.

Evans, Walker. “Walker Evans, Visiting Artist: A Transcript of His Discussion with Students at the University of Michigan.” In Photography: Essays and Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, 311-320. New York: MoMA,, 1980.

Finnegan, Cara. Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003.

Fleischhauer, Carl and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. Documenting America, 1935-1943. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Guimond, James. American Photography and the American Dream. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Hurley, F. Jack. Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties: Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Kidd, Stuart. Farm Security Administration Photography, The Rural South, and the Dynamics of Image-Making, 1935-1943. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 2004.

Kirstein, Lincoln, “Photographs of America: Walker Evans.” In Walker Evans: American Photographs by Walker Evans, 187-195. New York: Doubleday, 1938.

Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963.

Library of Congress. Farm Security Administration/ Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.

Maddox, Jerald C., ed.  Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1973.

Raeburn, John. A Staggering Revolution, A Cultural History of Thirties Photography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Rathbone, Belinda. Walker Evans: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

Sekula, Allan. “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation).” In Photography, Current Perspectives, edited by Jerome Liebling, 231-255. Rochester, NY: Light Impression Corp., 1978.

Stott, W. Documentary Expression in Thirties America. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1973.

Stryker, Roy. Interview by Richard Doud. Montrose, CO: January 23, 1965. Smithsonian  Institution, Archives of American Art.

Stryker, Roy E. and Nancy Wood. In This Proud Land; America, 1935-1943, As Seen in the FSA Photographs. Boston: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973.

Thompson, Jerry L. and John T. Hill, eds. Walker Evans at Work. New York: Harper and  Row, Publishers, 1982.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Turner, Peter. The History of Photography. London: Hamlyn, 1987.

Ward, J. A. The Realism of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.


The Mechanics of Syntax and Database Aesthetics in the US Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Archival File

The specific set of rules which governs the mechanics and coherence of a given language is customarily referred to as syntax. In the context of archival collections, the governing agency wielded by syntax dictates the manner by which archival matter may be accessed and interpreted.  A given collection is amassed within specific historical conditions, and is rendered a cohesive whole in the form of a recognizable, denotative visual language. The utility of archival materials as effective tools for (re)writing history is illumined by a deconstruction of the syntax, which punctuates the United States Farm Security AdministrationOffice of War Information archival file. The FSA-OWI file is perhaps the most lasting artifact of the New Deal era, and its syntactical structure both revolutionary and compound. The FSA-OWI file offers the user a liberating and revolutionary opportunity for engagement with the historical record and the production of new narratives. The wealth of historical complexities which have shaped the file’s provenance and contents, coupled with a perplexing syntactical structure, have yielded an enigmatic media language. Under the rubric of its dynamic governing syntax, the FSA-OWI file offers the user a latent nexus of archival matter readied for interpretation.[i]

While (re)writing history from archival materials suggests a plausible argument for alternative conceptualization methods in the discipline of history, the practice must be placed into a critical context in order to insure the evolution of cogent scholarship. Among the numerous challenges facing effective users of archival content is the fallacy of fixed meaning and the locating of a contemporary referent. Deconstruction of current and past layers of agency which have contributed to a file’s provenance, coupled with a comprehensive understanding of the particularities of a file’s syntax yields the possibility for a revisionist reading of history and the subsequent production of new histories.  In the case of the FSA-OWI archival file, users desirous of enabling cogent narratives which evoke a revisionist reading of history must engage the historical content, social location, and structural characteristics, which have contributed to the specificities of its syntax.  French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in his seminal work on archives, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, articulates that the efficient user of archives must be cogently aware of the content’s knowledge source and dwelling (domiciliation).[ii]  Derrida argues that the dimension of domiciliation serves as the prime referent, and thus, it is fundamental for the user to know the origins, unification, and position of the archival matter in relation to its domiciliation.  These particular signs may be interpreted and assessed by the user for their denotative value, and the meaning of the physical corpus of the archive, revealed. Comprehension of the FSA-OWI file as a platform for (re)writing history is enhanced by engaging Derrida’s principle of domiciliation, illuminating the necessity to deconstruct the file’s provenance and syntactical structure.

A comprehensive awareness of the file’s domiciliation will only contribute to the effective discernment of new meaning and enabling new narratives from the archival content, and thus, avoid the fallacy of fixed meaning. Locating contemporary connotative values for and within the FSA-OWI file calls for the user to engage in a reflexive relationship with the system’s syntax.  The recognition of new connotative values may be spawned through a comprehensive revisionist reading of history and through an understanding of why past and current denotative values are accepted. Surpassing the logical acceptance of existing denotative values and engaging the realm of new connotative value structures may also be achieved through psychic and spiritual processes. French philosopher Roland Barthes, in his seminal work on photography, Camera Lucida, argues that an intrinsic response to photographic imagery, in the form of the punctum,  is the force through which recognition of connotative value is recognized.[iii]  It is arguable that Barthes referent to the punctum is analogous to the moment when a particular photograph provokes and engages an unexpected emotional response in the viewer.  For Barthes, the punctum is a private experience, one which is completely subjective and dependent upon the processes of mechanical reproduction for its existence. If the reading of the punctum is “at once brief and active,”[iv] so too is the experience recognized by the user of the file during the process of recognizing new connotative values. In consideration of Barthes useful construct of the punctum as a referent to the contemporary practice of reading and engaging photographic matter, it is arguable that the user who is fluent in the syntax of the FSA-OWI archival file may arrive at the punctum and accordingly, make the transition into the mechanical reproduction process. If Barthes referent to the punctum is applied in the context of utilizing the FSA-OWI archival file as tool for (re)writing history, it is neither a fully conscious experience nor is it fully articulated. It is possible to infer, however, that the user’s ability to effectively engage the file is proportionate to their knowledge of syntax and archival matter, as they relate to the process of (re)writing history.  Consequently,  the aforementioned conditions contribute to the user’s experiential relationship to the punctum.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s discourse on the Real corroborates the philosophical dimension of Barthes punctum.[v] For the progenitors of the FSA-OWI file, perception of the Real was ostensibly dictated by a sense of nostalgia for traditional agrarian American values which had fallen into decline at the intersection of New Deal era progressivism, the Great Depression, and nationwide industrialization. The presence of the Real, as an aspect of the syntax which punctuates the FSA-OWI file, is evident when one considers the fixed referent to vernacular American culture emitted by the file. Relevant consideration of the philosophical and psychoanalytical frameworks postured by Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan, as they pertain to archival matter and perceptions of the Real, provides illumination to the process of isolating and applying new connotative values to the FSA-OWI file. Failure to locate new connotative values retards the advancement of historiography and archival practices, and cements the fallacy of fixed meaning. For decades, commercial and academic bodies have conveniently positioned the FSA-OWI file within the denotative frameworks of social documentary, art, propaganda, and the iconic. Given the lapse in time since the files inception, it is timely for users in the contemporary period to engage a revisionist and philosophical approach to both the syntax and the visual language it punctuates. Through this process, new narratives may be enabled, those which offer enlightenment and pedagogical value to the discerning viewer and to the advancement of the practice of history.[vi]

The potential to apply the FSA-OWI file as an effective tool for (re)writing history increases with fluency in syntax; and the psychic process of production is heightened by a comprehensive awareness of the principles of domiciliation, the Real, and the punctum. Acquisition of fluency in the file’s syntax is subject to the user’s intellectual location and breadth of dedication to the practice of history. The syntax which governs the FSA-OWI file may be deduced and illustrated by a simplified deconstruction of its most profound influences: the New Deal era visual aesthetic; the vision of FSA-OWI Historical Section Director, Roy Stryker; and Paul Vanderbilt’s filing system.

The New Deal Era Visual Aesthetic

While it is impossible to provide here a full sense of the characteristics and forces which shaped the New Deal era visual aesthetic; others, most notably William Stott and Warren Susman, have offered superb mediations on the subject.[vii] Of noteworthy importance is the degree to which political, social, and economic conditions defined the nature and form of visual culture which evolved in America during the 1930s.  The growth of the New Deal era visual aesthetic was ardently dictated by the progressive political aspirations of the Roosevelt administration- one that aspired to stabilize a new form of collectivism in America.  Of the prevalent characteristics which best articulate the aesthetic, the documentary style is perhaps the most visible. Stott notes that the New Deal era brought the need to visualize the Great Depression because it was nearly invisible to the eye.”[viii]  As the traumatic effects of human strife ran pervasively in tandem with economic crisis, the extreme and experimental nature of the New Deal policies necessitated a form of proof, so to legitimize their practicality and potential for success. Proponents of the aesthetic (who functioned under the auspices of the Roosevelt administration) sought to visualize the conditions which defined an authentic American culture in a state of strife and transition; this visualization effort also functioned as the government’s trope of representation. An emphasis was placed on the production of the documentary style in the forms of literature, photography, and film. Though it is far too simplistic to reduce the New Deal era of creative development entirely to the aforementioned conditions, they do offer a relevant framework for interpreting and evaluating the syntax which punctuates the FSA-OWI file.

Although the production of visual culture designed to legitimize government policy falls easily within the realm of propaganda, orchestrators of the New Deal aesthetic operated with a distinct referent to a vernacular for America culture. In Lacanian terminology, a distinct referent to the Real set the tone of the FSA-OWI file’s syntax. The Roosevelt administration’s desire to create an official pictorial file of America through the machinations of the New Deal aesthetic was driven by a yearning to cement a nostalgic portrait of the land at the intersection of the realization of a new identity; the FSA-OWI file was to function as a platform for visualizing and representing the American people in transition to a vital culture. The Roosevelt administration, through a meticulously orchestrated national arts movement, shaped the identifiable referent to the New Deal aesthetic. It was within these circumstances that the governing syntax and domiciliation of the FSA-OWI file emerged.[ix]

The structure of the FSA-OWI file’s syntax is the result of a complex set of social, political, and economic conditions which transpired at the intersection of the Great Depression and the new politicization of American society. Within the American political arena, a shift from classical liberal to modern liberal values was enforced and exuded by the Roosevelt administration, and a new affirming visual culture forged. Noted historian Arthur A. Ekirch observes of the New Deal era, “The developing political economy of the New Deal was part of a new philosophy in the Unites States which emerged most clearly and directly from the crisis of the Great Depression.”[x]  This new form of political economy was most grandiosely and comprehensively visualized in the documentary style, under the auspices of the New Deal agencies (Resettlement Administration, Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information) that supported the Historical Section photography unit.[xi]  The Roosevelt administration prescribed specific demands on the Historical Section photographers to produce materials which evoked the New Deal aesthetic, and illuminated the successes of recovery efforts throughout rural America. The bedrock of the syntax, which punctuates the FSA-OWI files was effectively moulded by these circumstances, and the physical images it contained were subject to the largesse of governmental dissemination strategies. The production of the file resulted in the rendering of a distinct visual language, one that during its time of production, served to corroborate the progressive modernizing measures aimed at the formation of a collectivist society. As the New Deal aesthetic dictated the formation of the file’s syntax, the user was faced with a potent denotative value in the form of an official government propaganda document. As subsequent connotative values also arose (namely social documentary, art, and the iconic), discourse on file’s syntax evolved.  The specific vision of Historical Section director, Roy Stryker, provides a valuable secondary window into the complexities of the file’s syntax.  

The Vision of FSA-OWI Historical Section Director, Roy Stryker

The vision of Historical Section director Roy Stryker, evidenced by the physical and philosophical dimensions of the FSA-OWI file, offers significant insight into the nature of the file’s syntax. A deconstruction of Stryker’s vision provides insight into both the syntax and utility of file as a revolutionary platform for (re)writing history.   Of the existing critical material written on Stryker, the position that he authored the most controversial and substantial social history archive in  American history is difficult to escape.[xii] As a comprehensive discussion on Stryker’s relationship to the New Deal aesthetic exceeds the domain of this essay, it is pertinent to note that as an agent of the Roosevelt administration, he commissioned nearly all the documents created for the FSA-OWI file in the form of prescriptive shooting scripts and functioned as editor in chief.[xiii]  Thus, the construction of the file and evolution of its syntax were significantly formed by Stryker’s perceived referent to the Real and the punctum.

Stryker’s vision for the FSA-OWI file had long been influenced by personal feelings of nostalgia and admiration for agrarian American society. Stryker was appointed Historical Section director by Rexford Tugwell- an influential economic advisor to the Roosevelt administration, who served as Undersecretary to the Department of Agriculture and head to the Resettlement Administration. The impetus to create a Historical Section within the RA was to benefit both Tugwell and Stryker. Tugwell was an ardent supporter of New Deal progressivism with an erudite comprehension of the forms of power that could be wielded through visual culture. Stryker, who had been Tugwell’s esteemed graduate assistant at Columbia, was well versed in sociology, economics, and the communicative power of photography.[xiv] Stryker was empowered by a belief in a distinct pictorial referent to agrarian America society, and his Lacanian referent to the Real was most significantly influenced by a nostalgic admiration for the  great American frontier. Stryker had also been raised in the primitive atmosphere of Southwestern Colorado cattle country and was greatly empowered by the values, which emanated from Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal essay on the great frontier, On the Significance of the Frontier in American History. The aforementioned factors imbued his vision for the Historical Section, and subsequently contributed to the formation of the syntax which punctuates the FSA-OWI file.

Under the aegis of Stryker, a Historical Section was formed consisting of a talented cohort of individuals, who too contributed to the formation of the file’s syntax. Although Stryker accorded his photographers a degree of creative freedom, he specified the parameters for his desired panoramic encyclopedia of contemporary America. His evangelical fervour, for the most part, was respected by his photographers. The rendering of the file took the form of a record, which depicted a sense of abstract and timeless values- the embodiment of Stryker’s referent to the Real.[xv] Stryker’s photographers were committed to his vision, and the Historical Section operated with fluency in particular style of documentary photography.  

For a file of such enormous scale and vision, Stryker’s haphazard approach to defining and stabilizing a cogent classification system foreshadowed the immanent necessity for professional intervention. Between 1935 and 1943, the earliest method of organizing the burgeoning number of photographs seems to have been by state and by subject, identified by shooting script. The practice of also filing together all pictures made on specific assignments (which later came to be known as lots) provided further complications to users interested in reading and accessing the file.  Although Stryker and his assistant, Edwin Rosskam, desired to advance the structure of the filing system, the evolving panoramic record of America was situated in a linguistically inchoate position, and the speed at which the differing images accumulated undermined any effort to clarify the situation.  In a memorandum written in 1941 Rosskam exhorted Stryker to introduce a clear subject file so that users, namely the government and media, could find what they needed with some dispatch. To further illustrate the file’s state of chaos, Rosskam had entitled his memo to Stryker as “Hieroglyphics we call our photographic file and how to decipher them.”[xvi]  By 1942, it was evident that the FSA-OWI file had acquired the posture of an historical artifact- one in dire need of a formal classification system and a formal home. In 1943, when the Historical Section was subsumed by the Office of War Information, Stryker began the process of having the file assumed by the Library of Congress.[xvii]  The file was officially transferred to the Library of Congress in 1944, and Vanderbilt appointed head archivist to the newly acquired FSA-OWI Collection. Under the direction of Stryker, an encyclopedia of contemporary America had been amassed, edited, and preserved with official distinction. Stryker’s referent to the Real and relationship with the punctum, coupled with the inheritance of the New Deal aesthetic, cemented the foundations of the syntax, which would soon evolve into an accessible systematized nexus for (re)writing history.   

Paul Vanderbilt’s Filing System

Between 1944 and 1946, the FSA-OWI file was officially transferred to the Library of Congress, and Vanderbilt assumed the permanent position of head archivist. Vanderbilt was a modern liberal, who celebrated the fraternity of the New Deal aesthetic, and espoused a belief in the infinite range of identities which shaped American society. Vanderbilt painstakingly liaised with Stryker so to devise a system of classification that would reflect the spirit of New Deal progressivism, the ethos of Stryker’s vision of America, and the groundwork already accomplished by Rosskam. The revolutionary mechanics of his master classification system were deeply rooted in an objective, humanist philosophy which aspired to enabling an open, accessible, and arbitrary platform for the practice of (re)writing history.   The physical construct, philosophy, and logic of Vanderbilt’s master filing system contributed to the most important and lasting dimension the FSA-OWI file’s syntax.

Vanderbilt’s system was punctuated by a belief in the utility and value of visual archival materials as tools for (re)writing history. Vanderbilt often drew analogies to the mechanics of linguistics, and perceived the contents of the file as a visual language akin to that of a written language, capable of expressing historical realities. The defining formation of the file’s syntax was his task, and an emphasis was placed on stabilizing a consistent and accessible domiciliation.  According to Derrida’s principle of domiciliation, spaces which host archival content create the form of an institution, which are reflective of an abstract, mental entity. Vanderbilt’s revolutionary filing system enabled an abstract space conscious of the file’s agency and provenance, though arbitrary in configuration so that infinite realities of American history could be experienced by the user. As fluency in the file’s syntax lends access to this latent and revolutionary platform for storytelling, a cogent comprehension of the file’s domiciliation also takes precedence. Derrida refers to the effectiveness of the archive’s capacity to function as consignation, explicated as “the coordination of a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration.”[xviii]  Vanderbilt’s depth of consideration for syntax and domiciliation resulted in the enabling of a systematic platform designed for the production of indeterminate thought, one which permanently encouraged the revisionist reading of American history.

Vanderbilt read the visual language of the FSA-OWI file as a place of  commonplace images, and his system invoked an arbitrary space for revision of thought, disengaged from the confines of existing values. Vanderbilt’s system did not seek to neutralize the historical location of the file, rather, its purpose was to allow a singular image to serve different users, under different circumstances.  In his personal writings, Vanderbilt emphasizes the value of an inescapable ambiguity of an uncaptioned, free-floating photograph. He perceived the archival content of the FSA-OWI file “not as facts so much as conceptions”, and pervasively applied analogies to the mechanics of language.[xix] The powerful relationship shared between photographs and knowledge equated in the possibility for the expression of new cognitions and new relations.  In 1959, Vanderbilt reflected on the master filing systems as “that which provides for recombination and reuse…Certainly the provision for location of pictures on call is not to be neglected, but more important is the scattering of pictures in the pathways of search, where they may be found  unexpected as fresh inspiration.”[xx]

In sum, the filing system was conceptualized as a rationalized facility for storage and retrieval, a machine apparently intending no meanings of its own, no interpretations or ideology. This strict functionality, liberated from conflict over meaning with an objective to encourage the user to devise his own meanings, evokes the contemporary connotative value of the file as an effective tool for (re)writing history.     

Vanderbilt’s objective filing system is the defining unequivocal code which supports the FSA-OWI file’s syntax.  The construct of the filing system was devised as a  dual system, composed of two complimentary parts in the form of an orderly arrangement of Stryker’s original lots and a new classified file. Vanderbilt believed that the dual system would enable the user to move with ease from the arbitrarily arranged subject-based classified file to the site-specific lots.[xxi]  Vanderbilt’s restructuring of Stryker’s original working file was devised in three major steps.

Upon the Library of Congress’ acquisition of the working file, Vanderbilt assembled the Stryker opus (77,000 prints) and an additional grouping of ancillary images (30,000 prints) into orderly lots, distinguished by shooting assignment and year.  Vanderbilt defined a lot as “a set of prints which is desired to keep together in some order not provided for by the subject classifications, because it is a story conceived and photographed as an interpretative unit.”[xxii] The lots established by Vanderbilt ranged in size from about thirty to more than two hundred prints. By the end of the project, Vanderbilt had formed about 2,200 lots by incorporating pre-existing groups of photographs as he found them or by assembling groups of photographs that had been dispersed within Stryker’s former filing system. Vanderbilt then selectively microfilmed 1,800 of the lots (88,000 prints in total- 77,000 from the Stryker opus and 11,000 extracted from the ancillary sources). The remaining 400 lots (19,000 prints) were placed in storage boxes. He used microfilm to preserve the arrangement of the lots because only one print of each image existed. Vanderbilt then took the 88,000 prints that had been microfilmed and arranged as lots, and created the classified file. In the classified file, the individual prints were sorted and rearranged by subject classes within larger geographical divisions, rather than in groups that represented shooting assignments or connotative stories.[xxiii] The nature of the filing system liberated the image from any form of categorical confinement, cementing the defining aspect of the file’s syntax. A revolutionary paradox occurred: the system transferred the fixed signifier from the file and image, rendering content as a free floating forms, detached from determinacy, subject only to the user’s intent.

Today, the classified file, the microfilmed lots, and the stored lots are available to the user in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room at the Library of Congress. Statistical data and discourse reflected by experts reflects neither a complete index nor an accurate count of the entire number of prints and negatives contained within the FSA-OWI file. Given Vanderbilt’s vision of the FSA-OWI file as a platform for experiencing infinite versions of America, the aforementioned statistical details have no critical bearing on the function of syntax.

*   *   *

Discourse on the application of archival materials as effective tools for (re)writing history is illuminated by a comprehensive deconstruction of the syntax which governs a given collection.  In the process of interpreting and revising the historical record through the media of archival materials, fluency in the collection’s governing syntax is indispensable. The syntax which punctuates the FSA-OWI file is a result of layers of historical influence and agency, and presents a remarkable opportunity to the user. As a defining artifact of the New Deal era governed by the forces of an objective structure, a user fluent in the file’s syntax is given inescapable access to their own experience with the Real and the punctum. The domiciliation of the file is host to a complex portrait of Depression era America, captured within the context of the New Deal aesthetic and Stryker’s vision of the Real. The arbitrary nature of the Vanderbilt filing system facilitates uninhibited access to the wealth of content which forms the FSA-OWI file, and encourages the user to participate in an objective network for the production of (re)writing history.  The practice of engaging the FSA-OWI file to envision new narratives corroborates Vanderbilt’s thesis on archives, and sustains the ethos of Stryker’s nostalgic referent to the Real- a panoramic encyclopedia of America.

Through the production of new narratives derived from archival material, latent histories are released from the confines of the host institution, and new platforms for inquiry are enabled to the discerning viewer. Vanderbilt’s philosophy towards archival materials and the pragmatic methods he employed to efficiently facilitate the file’s syntax were revolutionary to the practice of (re)writing history. The FSA-OWI file supports a system, where the user is encouraged to exercise freedom of creative thought and intent. Critical analysis of the FSA-OWI file also reveals that it is subject to its own contradictions. Punctuated by innumerable layers of agency and composed of vast and disparate components, the file reflects the problems of drawing representations of America. In this particular case, the contradiction is an opportunity rather than a deterrent, as the conscious and unconscious birth of new narratives remains inevitable.  Thus, the syntax of the FSA-OWI file supports a revolutionary platform for (re)writing history, where the devising of new narratives are subject to the user’s impulse, perception of the Real, and relationship to the punctum.  These conclusions illuminate how history is a construct of personally negotiated factors and regimes, and calls attention to the potential value of unconventional production methods. If it is plausible that new histories may be interpreted and communicated from archival collections, greater consideration must be accorded to the functional and philosophical values of syntax. Users of the FSA-OWI file have the ability not only to envision and disseminate realities of American history, but to advance the practice and perception of history as a discipline.



[i] In brief, the FSA-OWI archival file is composed of 6 specific collections, which were created under the auspices of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration’s New Deal agencies. The collections were acquired by the United States Library of Congress in 1944, and the majority of the FSA-OWI file is derived from materials produced and gathered by the famed Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (1935-1937), which was subsumed by the Farm Security Administration (1937-1942), which was later subsumed by the Office of War Information (1942-1943). Ancillary content produced outside of the parameters of the Historical Section that functioned within the RA, FSA, and OWI is considered to be significantly connected to the aforementioned. The 6 specific collection which comprise the FSA-OWI file are referred to as follows (dates are indicated where applicable): Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration Collection (1935-1942); Office of War Information Collection (1942-1943, Overseas Operations Branch, Washington Office photograph files); Office of Emergency Management-Office of War Information Collection (1940-1946, News Bureau photographs); America at War Collection; Portrait of America Collection; and the Office of War Information Collection (Overseas Operations Branch, news photographs files). See Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan, eds., Documenting America, 1935-1943 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 333-334.

[ii] See Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2-3.

[iii] The argument for recognition of connotative value through psychic and spiritual process is a position take by the author of this essay- whose creative arts practice is punctuated by the philosophic process of arriving at the dynamic composition. See Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. Michael T. H. Sadlier (London: Tate, 2006). For a comprehensive discussion on the specifics of Barthes interpretation of the punctum see Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980).

[iv] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 49.

[v] In Lacan’s theory, perception of the Real is synonymous with what is real for the subject, where at the same time as they are functions linking the subject to others and to the world, any change in one order will have repercussions on the others. Lacan also argues that the Real is the domain, which exists outside the realm of symbolization, offering an intrinsic unarticulated referent to symbolization, though never wholly subsumed by it. Lacan’s psychoanalytical dynamic of agency wielded by the Real and symbolization may be applied to an analytical deconstruction of the referent, as it pertains to the respective vision of America held by the Roosevelt administration, Roy Stryker, and Paul Vanderbilt. For the contemporary user of the FSA-OWI archival file, the philosophical and psychoanalytical forces propelling the user’s creative process and recognition of connotative values may be plausibly distilled in terms of the punctum and the Real. For a comprehensive study on Lacan’s construct of the Real see Jacques Lacan, Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, trans. Anthony Wilden (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1968).

[vi] A recent revisionist documentary work, created in the form of an artist’s book by Canadian visual artist Monika Berenyi, enabled a platform for (re)evaluating the mythological ethos of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The critical work deconstructs FDR’s New Deal policies through a subversive juxtaposition of primary source documents, images from the FSA-OWI archival file, and newly constructed oral histories. See Monika Berenyi, What We Are About To Receive: Historical Voices from the United States Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Archival File (Agawam, MA: Isolde Solange Evangeline Pressworks, 2011).

[vii] The New Deal era is defined as the period in American history contained to the years 1933-1941 (beginning with the inauguration of President Roosevelt and ending with the United States’ entry into World War II). The provenance of the term New Deal era is derived from the thematic and sequential series of policies implemented under the Roosevelt administration that attempted to revitalize and reconstruct American society during the time of the Great Depression. Two New Deals, differing in orientation, characterized the years 1933-1935 and 1935-1937, respectively. For a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of the New Deals on the evolution of visual culture during the 1930s see William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) and Warren Susman, The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[viii] Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America, 67.

[ix] Between 1933 and 1943, a cluster of New Deal arts initiatives was enabled by the Roosevelt administration, supporting the livelihood of thousands of creative individuals. Noteworthy initiatives included: the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the Works Progress Administration‘s Federal Art Project (FAP), the Historical Section of the RA (later subsumed by the FSA, and then the OWI), the Federal Writers Project (FWP), and the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). As nearly 70 percent of all New Deal agencies employed photographers within their programs and maintained pubic information offices to disseminate their pictures, John Raeborn has argued that the success and visibility of the FSA-OWI file was due largely to a unique configuration of circumstances: the profound leadership and vision of Historical Section director Roy Stryker, the accumulative talent of the photographers employed, and the role played by media agencies who consistently published images from the file. In contrast to these circumstances, photographic files created by other New Deal agencies were staffed by journeymen who were simply content with being employed. See John Raeborn, A Staggering Revolution, A Cultural History of Thirties Photography (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 147.

[x] Arthur A. Ekirch, Ideologies and Utopias: The Impact of the New Deal on American Thought (Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1969), 105.

[xi] The Resettlement Administration (RA, 1935-1937) was an experimental New Deal planning strategy designed to provide assistance to dustbowl migrants, sharecroppers, and farmers during the time of the Great Depression. The Historical Section photography unit was established under the rubric of the RA. In 1937, Congress passed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, and created the Farm Security Administration (FSA, 1937-1942). The RA transmuted into the FSA, and broader agency was accorded to its program administrators. The RA Historical Section was subsumed by the FSA, and the bulk of fame associated with the term FSA photographers crystallized during this period. During the years 1942-1943, the FSA Historical Section was subsumed by the Office of War Information. Photographers affiliated with the original FSA continued to function as the Historical Section within the OWI, and as a result, developed a body of OWI content.  The materials created between 1935-1943 represent those of the Historical Section, commonly known as the FSA-OWI file. The terms FSA-OWI archival file and Historical Section have been employed in this essay to simplify the complexity of known nomenclature associated with the file.

[xii] The FSA-OWI file is held in the Library of Congress, and is referred to as the FSA-OWI Photograph Collection (Prints and Photographs Division).  Within the FSA-OWI file, the Stryker opus (created between 1935-1943) encompasses approximately 77,000 stock images, and 145,000 negatives (including both black-and-white negatives and colour transparencies). Points of controversy include: the status of the file as an official document of the Roosevelt administration; the degree to which the images were blatantly publicized; and the alarming fact that the persons photographed by the Historical Section never authorized their images to be captured, nor, for the most part, were their names even requested.

[xiii] An example of a portion of a select shooting scrip written by Stryker in 1936 reads as follows: “From R.E. Stryker to All Photographers…Here again, a most interesting set of pictures could be taken, keeping in mind different income groups and different geographical areas…The group activities of various income levels, the organized and unorganized activities of the various income groups (Where can people meet? Both the well-to-do and poor).” See Roy E. Stryker and Nancy Wood, In This Proud Land: American 1935-1943, As Seen in the FSA Photographs (Boston: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973), 187.

[xiv] In 1934, Stryker proposed the idea of creating a pictorial source book on American agriculture to Tugwell, and Tugwell subsequently endorsed the idea. By 1935, with the establishment of the RA, the creation of the Historical Section photography unit evolved as a natural progression from the pictorial source book concept. Stryker’s yearning to manifest his nostalgic vision of an agrarian America society would be appeased in the context of a Historical Section photography unit framed to reflect the successes of Tugwell’s RA projects.

[xv] Stryker’s social science outlook on the construction of the file was imposed through his efforts of indoctrinating his photographers in the art of a particular form of image capture. The photographers were trained in the fields of sociology, economics, and history, and required to prepare for their fieldwork assignments through systematic and comprehensive study of local conditions (geography, agriculture,  industries, local culture). Stryker’s method for image capture also entailed adherence to his dictatorial shooting scripts, which also demanded the production of accompanying reports and captions. The specific nature of Stryker’s production framework significantly shaped the visual language and syntax of the file. See F. Jack Hurley, Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), 13-15.

[xvi] Allan Trachtenburg, ”From Image to Story: Reading the File,” in Documenting America, 1935-1943, eds. Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 53.

[xvii] The file was transferred in boxes from the Washington bureau of the OWI in the form of lots, based on Stryker’s shooting scripts, notes on states, and subjects. Ephemera, correspondences, and detailed lists containing captions accompanied the contents. During the time of transfer, the geographic distribution of the file could be recognized by region and state, as follows: The Northeast (166 lots); The Mid-Atlantic Region (287 lots); The Great Lakes Region (220 lots); The South (371 lots); The Midwest (107 lots); The Southwest (192 lots); The Rocky Mountain and Great Basin Region (113 lots); The Northwest (51 lots); California (70 lots); Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (2 lots); and Mexico (1 lot). For statistical data references see Fleischhauer and Brannan, eds., Documenting America, 1935-1943, 336-337.

[xviii] Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 3.

[xix] Paul Vanderbilt, “Computations for a Viewfinder,” Afterimage, September 1976, 12.

[xx] Ibid., 13.

[xxi] The classified file contains the subject files devised by Vanderbilt. The images contained within the classified file have their lot numbers stamped on the back, enabling the user to move freely from Vanderbilt’s arbitrary arrangement of subjects to Stryker’s content and site-specific shooting assignments.

[xxii]Fleischhauer and Brannan, eds., Documenting America, 1935-1943, 332.

[xxiii] The subject major classes in the classified file are as follows: 14(The Land); 2(Cities and Towns -as background); 3(People as Such- without emphasis on their activity); 4(Homes and Living Conditions); 5-52(Transportation); 53-65(Work); 66-69(Organized Society); 7(War); 8-83(Medicine and Health); 84-85 (Religion); 86-88 (Intellectual and Creative Activity); 89-94 (Social and Personal Activity); 96 (Alphabetical Section). The system of individual subclasses, like the major classes listed above, does not take the perfect form of an outline. Each subclass contains photographs, and the naming and numbering (which vary for each of the six geographical divisions) reflect Vanderbilt’s pragmatic flexibility. For the most comprehensive overview of the FSA-OWI system see Paul Vanderbilt, Guide to the Special Collections of Prints and Photographs in the Library of Congress (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1955).


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Berenyi, Monika. What We Are About To Receive: Historical Voices From the United States Farm Security Archival File. Agawam, MA: Isolde Solange Evangeline Pressworks, 2011.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Ekirch, Arthur A. Ideologies and Utopias: The Impact of the New Deal on American Thought.  Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Fleischhauer, Carl and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. Documenting America, 1935-1943. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Hurley, F. Jack. Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of  Documentary Photography in the Thirties. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Kandinsky, Wassily, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by Michael T. H. Sadlier. London: Tate, 2006.

Lacan, Jacques. Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. Translated by Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1968.

Raeburn, John. A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of Thirties Photography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Stryker, Roy E. and Nancy Wood. In This Proud Land; America, 1935-1943, As Seen in the FSA Photographs. Boston: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973.

Susman, Warren. Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Trachtenberg, Alan. “From Image to Story: Reading the File.” In Documenting America, 1935-1943, edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan, 43-73. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Early Writing of Frederick Jackson Turner. Complied by Everett E. Edwards. Freeport, NY: Books for Library Press, 1969.

Vanderbilt, Paul. Guide to the Special Collections of Prints & Photographs in the Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1955.


There Were the Years 1935-1944


Ours is the spirit of a careworn vessel.
Misery is resilient.
We’re spelling ourselves
In a land of dust
With wrecks for chariots.


We gather in church and pray for rain.
Clouds spring, then vanish quickly;
Wind answers, erasing the sun with lightening speed.
In the harvest of our sorrows
Darkness cradles at midday.


Freedom is bait and there’s no place like home.
The radio
puts us all to sleep,
oh my beautiful A MER ICA.
I’d rather smoke cigarettes in Chicago than be forgotten.


Somewhere deep in the Mississippi Delta
Black gales howl and juke joints stir.
If you blow into the Ozarks
You’ll meet the mountain children there-
A lot which has remained the same.


On days dead dry
We drove the Mother Road,
Leaving cattle country far behind.
Mays Avenue Camp, Oklahoma
One sad place in history.


The cotton mills of Georgia
Are sweating prayers to gods;
Some folks play cards
In the center of town,
Wearing crisp white gloves.


Stop for service, boys!
Pearl Harbor
Liberty ships
Christmas 1941 – we’ll do our part.
Victory also rests on ladies and gardens.


Southerners waltz in twilight hours;
Only some are saved.
Plantations rest on Sundays and Iowa is a proverb.
And the Japanese?
Nobody really knows.


Coal, butter, sugar, paper, tin, brass, honey, copper, hosiery…rationed.
People live in abandoned churches.
Beauty parlor signs are scarce.
Crossing lines on the Million Dollar Highway,
Colorado beams my frontier dream.


In Tombstone Arizona,
If you die, you’re dead, that’s all.
The freight train stops at a sliding to cool its drawn wheels.
There’s a first-class God leading us all
….down this Road.

By M. Berenyi (June 2012)