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file, users desirous of enabling cogent narratives which evoke a revisionist reading of history must engage the historical content, social location, and structural characteristics, which have contributed to the specificities of its syntax.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).


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