Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers

The picture began to be the thing of my life. The photograph was the way to reach the people. Somehow, some way I wanted life in the pictures.

— Roy Stryker, 1975

In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt put documentary photography to work. Long before television, the internet, and the 24-hour cable news cycle, he believed that imagery could move citizens and their government to action. He charged the Resettlement Administration with providing that imagery, to reveal America to Americans. The agency’s job, says Julian Bond at the start of Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers, “was to convince a skeptical Congress that thousands of dispossessed farm families pouring across the country, like the Joads in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, desperately needed their government’s help.”

Roosevelt and Roy Stryker, the Princeton economist who served as Chief of the RA’s Historical Section, thought that Americans only knew what they saw. Urban dwellers knew little of what their rural counterparts were going through. Easterners remained ignorant of the hardships of the Dust Owl. Stryker’s agency meant to change that, to bring the separate elements of the nation into some kind of contact, to make visible the experiences of those thousands who were unemployed, displaced, and impoverished. “People who were suffering,” remembers Gordon Parks, “felt that someone was speaking for them, because they couldn’t speak for themselves, if you had enough money to buy a paper or magazine to see their pictures.”

Parks was one of the photographers tapped to work for the RA. He recalls that Stryker, on meeting him for the first time, asked what he thought of Washington DC. The 23-year-old Parks suggested the city was “the seat of democracy.” Stryker, he says, sent him to out to buy lunch and then go see a movie, in order to review it. When Parks returned to Stryker’s office, he was asked how it went. “I think you know how it went,” Parks responded. “Yep,” said Stryker, “I know how it went.” Parks had encountered “White Only” signs, unable to eat in the restaurant across the street or sit in a theater with Caucasian moviegoers. And with that, the film reports, Stryker told Parks to “use his camera to put a face on racism and injustice.” And Parks did just that, with his photograph of charwoman Ella Watson, “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.”

It’s difficult to imagine in our over-mediated present, the results of seeing others’ lives or faces for the first time, of feeling exposed and even accountable to strangers. The photographers who worked for Stryker recorded what they saw, and their art became transformative as well as documentary. From Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” to Arthur Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm” to Walker Evans’ “Floyd Burroughs, Sharecropper”, the photos were a new means to do political work. As Stanford history professor David Kennedy puts it, “The New Deal has to be understood as a sustained political effort to change the institutional and, not incidentally, attitudinal structure of American life. [The Depression] was a crisis not only of the economy, but you might say a crisis of political legitimacy.”

This effort to make the crisis visible was a well considered response. University of Memphis historian F. Jack Hurley explains,

A depression is a funny sort of a disaster. It’s not like a hurricane, it’s not like a tornado, it’s almost the absence of things. For many Americans, it meant that your next door neighbor moved away, you didn’t know where. The factory is closed up, there’s no smoke coming out of the smokestack. It’s an eerie, scary thing, because there’s nothing obvious. It’s the absence of people.

The film trumpets the unprecedented political and social effectiveness of the agency, it also points to occasional problems — most having to do with opponents of FDR’s reelection. As the photographers aimed to redress this absence, they were also functioning under caveats. Putting the moment in historical perspective, University of California, Irvine’s Sally Stein says, “There was a strong reaction at the end of World War I that the government had been far too involved in propaganda and, for the next 10-15 years, there was a sentiment in Washington… there was a backlash.” Documenting the Face of America‘s generous use of the RA’s photos (most now housed at the Library of Congress) suggests the risk of the project. The images are surely moving, and as such they reveal the fears of Congressional adversaries of the New Deal (who called it everything from “fascism” to “socialism” and “communism”): they are at once documents and emotional appeals, art and journalism — and looking forward to today’s debates over documentary films’ subjectivity, consequence, and purpose.

Rothstein added fuel to this fire while shooting a cow skull in Fargo, North Dakota. When he moved the skull from a sparsely grassy area to a spot of cracked earth, Stryker’s agency was accused of misleading the public (“The whole program is a ghastly fake, based on fake ideas!”) But amid such concerns about being duped came other objections to the RA, says LC Curator of Photography Beverly Brannon, motivated by the unpleasant truths it uncovered: “They didn’t like the exposés of class issues, and they didn’t like the racial exposés that were contained in these pictures.”

Though it’s only an hour long, Jeanine Isabel Butler’s film addresses an impressive range of issues — focused through representation and responsibility — germane for us today. While worries over what sorts of truths or lies an image might convey or construct may be exacerbated by advancing digital technologies, the film also raises questions about what consumers expect from photos, art, and journalism, as well as from official bodies and authorities. Imagine a time when the government actually considered it a mission to help those citizens who were derived of shelter and food, and embraced — however fitfully — its obligations to its less fortunate citizens. “It wasn’t today,” says Hurley of the RA’s decade. “It was a different world.”

When World War II began, the photographers and Stryker were folded into the Office of War Information, where they were told to shoot propaganda, pretty much straight up. As Documenting the Face of America argues, this transition was predictable, given the agency’s previous efficacy. It is also a useful caution to keep in mind concerning the ways that images can be manipulated.

RATING 7 / 10