Berenice Abbott
(American, 1898–1991)
Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York, 1935, from Portfolio IV: New York
Gelatin silver print, 1935 negative, printed 1979
15 ½" × 19 ½"
Copyright Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics
Bank of America Collection

Berenice Abbott

After graduating from Ohio State University, Berenice Abbott moved to New York to study journalism but eventually decided to pursue a career in sculpture and painting. From 1921 to 1929, she lived and worked in Paris—first as a model for well-known artists, then as a darkroom assistant for photographer Man Ray and finally as a highly regarded and successful portrait photographer. In 1926, Abbott mounted her first solo exhibition at the Galerie au Sacre du Printemps, Paris.

In 1929, Abbott returned to New York. During her absence, hundreds of 19th-century buildings had been razed to make way for dozens of skyscrapers. The unprecedented building boom inspired Abbott to give up her thriving Parisian portrait practice to photograph the new face of New York. For four years, between her freelance work and college teaching position at The New School, Abbott struggled to pursue and finance her project independently. In 1935, when the Federal Art Project of the WPA was established, Abbott submitted her proposal for support. The WPA gave her a $145 monthly salary, a field assistant, research assistants, a secretary and a car. By 1940, she had completed Changing New York, one of the monumental achievements of twentieth-century photography. Changing New York was an effort to “preserve for the future an accurate and faithful chronicle in photographs of the changing aspect of the world’s greatest metropolis.”xxv

In 1936, Abbott joined with Paul Strand to establish the Photo League, whose initial purpose was to provide progressive newspapers and magazines with photographs of labor union activities and political protests. Later, the group focused on photographing working-class communities.

Ben Shahn
(American, b. Lithuania, 1898–1969)
Seward Park, New York, 1935
Vintage gelatin silver print
5" × 7 ½"
Copyright © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA
Bank of America Collection

Ben Shahn

One of the most admired and collected artists of his generation, Ben Shahn was a painter, photographer, printmaker and political activist known for his poignant narratives of American life. Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, Shahn immigrated with his family to the United States in 1906. During his teenage years, Shahn was apprenticed to a New York lithographer. In 1919, he enrolled at New York University, eventually completing his studies at the City College of New York in 1924. After two years studying at the National Academy of Design, he traveled in Europe and North Africa.

In 1934, Ben Shahn was working as an artist producing murals for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (which would become part of the Works Progress Administration). In 1935, Shahn was recommended by Walker Evans, a friend and former roommate, for a job with the photographic group at the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA). For the FSA, Shahn roamed and documented the American South together with Evans and Dorothea Lange. Like his earlier photography of New York City, Shahn’s FSA work can be viewed as social documentary. He shed light on difficult living and working conditions, believing that artists have a moral obligation to express their social and political views through art.

Walker Evans
(American, 1903–1975)
Company Houses for Tannery Workers, Gormania, West Virginia, 1935
Gelatin silver print, 1935 negative, printed c. 1970s
7 3/8" × 9 3/8"
Library of Congress
Bank of America Collection

Walker Evans

Walker Evans began taking snapshots during a trip to Europe in the 1920s and published his first images a decade later. Soon an established photographer, he contributed photographs to a book of poetry by Hart Crane, The Bridge, 1930, and photographed in Cuba on assignment by publisher Carleton Beals for a book entitled The Crime of Cuba, 1933. Evans photographed for the U.S. Department of the Interior and was transferred to the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), in late 1935. During the Great Depression, he photographed workers and architecture in the Southeastern United States. In 1936, he traveled with the writer James Agee to illustrate an article on tenant farm families for Fortune magazine. Their journey would prove an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event when, in 1941, their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published to enormous critical acclaim.

Evans was best known for his photographs of American life between the world wars. Everyday objects and people—the urban and rural poor, abandoned buildings, storefronts, street signs and the like—are encapsulated in his iconic images of the 1930s and 1940s. From 1945 to 1965, Evans was an associate editor of Fortune, and from 1965 until his death in 1975, he taught a course at Yale University, which he called “Seeing.”

Arthur Rothstein
(American, 1915–1985)
Mike Sullinger, Who Has a Farm Near Carson, North Dakota, Looks for Rain, 1936
Gelatin silver print, printed 1936
7" × 9 ¼"
Library of Congress
Bank of America Collection

Arthur Rothstein

Arthur Rothstein was born in Manhattan, grew up in the Bronx and later attended Columbia University, where he founded the camera club. His photographic expertise won the admiration of two professors, Guy Tugwell and Roy Stryker, who were later beckoned to Washington to work for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. Rothstein worked for the government under a program administered by the National Youth Administration and hoped to attend medical school, but when Stryker offered him a good-paying job—a rarity during the Great Depression—he took it. In Washington, Rothstein set up the darkroom for the Photo Unit of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration, which became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937.

Rothstein was sent out on his first assignment as a photographer in the summer of 1935. He traveled the country documenting the plight of Americans trying to survive the Depression. After five long years on the road, he took a job as a staff photographer for Look magazine. Rothstein became known for his technical innovations and his passionate use of documentary photography for the betterment of society. He was a founding member of New York’s Photo League, which was dedicated to the use of photography to effect social change.

Dorothea Lange
(American, 1895–1965)
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936
Gelatin silver print, printed 1967
10" × 8"
Library of Congress
Bank of America Collection

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange began her career in New York, later migrating to San Francisco, where she opened a portrait studio in 1918. Her personal interest in social issues led her to photograph some of the city’s dispossessed, and her photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.

Lange’s searing studies of homelessness caught the attention of a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, who asked her to help him document the plight of migrant farm workers in Nipomo and the Imperial Valley for the California State Emergency Relief Administration. In 1935, Lange became a photographer for the Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Her work for these agencies helped to bring the plight of displaced farm families and migrant workers to the attention of the public. Lange employed modernist design elements such as close-up views and sharp cropping to enhance the emotional intensity of her images. Distributed free of charge to newspapers across the country, her poignant photographs quickly became icons of the era.

Marion Post Wolcott
(American, 1910–1990)
Unemployed Coal Miner's Daughter Carrying Home Can of Kerosene;
Company Housing, Pursglove, Scott's Run, West Virginia
, 1938
Gelatin silver print, printed 1981
11" × 14"
Library of Congress
Bank of America Collection

Marion Post Wolcott

Before taking a job as a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, where she was relegated to work on fashion and society news, Marion Post Wolcott had been living in New York City, working as a freelance photographer. She was active in several political and social organizations, including the American League Against War and Fascism and New York’s Photo League. It was through the Photo League’s founders, Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner, that Wolcott was introduced to Roy Stryker, the director of the photography project at the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Stryker hired her in 1938.

Wolcott is best known for the more than 9,000 photographs she produced for the FSA from 1938 to 1942. She covered thousands of miles of the United States with her camera to document and publicize the need for federal assistance to those hardest hit by the Great Depression. Her images challenged social mores about the propriety of young women living away from the family home and traveling on their own. Although she worked professionally for only a few years, her artistry and perseverance inspired numerous articles, books and exhibitions, and her photographs created a lasting record of American life on the eve of World War II.

Untitled

Russell Lee
(American, 1903–1986)
Untitled (Migrant worker looking through back window of automobile near Prague, Oklahoma. Lincoln County, Oklahoma), 1939
Gelatin silver print
9 ½" × 12 ½"
Bank of America Collection

Russell Lee

Russell Lee grew up in Ottawa, Illinois. Although he received a degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh University, he gave up a career as a chemist to become a painter. In 1927, Lee married painter Doris Emrick and moved to a small artists’ community in Woodstock, New York. Lee struggled with painting for several years. In 1935, he bought a camera and fell in love with photography.

In Woodstock, Lee began taking photographs that reflected his concerns for the beleaguered working class and then went to Pennsylvania to photograph bootleg coal miners. The winter of 1935 found him in New York City documenting the poor and their living conditions. In 1936, he became interested in a group of photographers in Washington, D.C., who were doing social documentary work. As a result, Lee met with Roy Stryker, the director of the photography project at the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Stryker hired Lee as well as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein to document the success of federal rural relief projects. Lee took photographs throughout the Midwest for the FSA that depicted the plight of farmers during the Great Depression. In 1938, Lee’s marriage ended, and within the same year he met and married newspaper reporter Jean Smith. They worked together, Lee taking photographs and Jean writing short essays to accompany the images. Lee’s images evoke the idea that people might have been laid low by the Depression, but had not given up.

Jack Delano
(American, b. Ukraine, 1914–1997)
(Untitled) Daughter of a Negro FSA (Farm Security Administration) client, Greensboro, Greene County, Georgia, 1941
Gelatin silver print
8" × 11"
Bank of America Collection

Jack Delano

Jack Delano was born Jacob Ovcharov in Kiev, Ukraine, and immigrated to Philadelphia with his family in 1923. In 1932, he began his study of drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1936, he first took up photography while studying art in Europe on a scholarship.

Upon returning to the U.S., Delano applied for a grant from the Federal Art Project to study mining conditions in Pennsylvania. Delano sent his photos to Roy Stryker, the director of the photography project at the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), who was eventually able to hire Delano in 1940. Delano set out to document the human condition and address social issues with his photography and became known for his strong compositions and sensitivity to his subjects. Like other FSA photographers, Delano traveled throughout the United States depicting American culture while also completing specific assignments. One of his most famous projects involved the nation’s train system. In 1941, he traveled to Puerto Rico as a part of the FSA photography project and was so touched by the experience that he settled there permanently in 1946.

Edward Steichen
(American, b. Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
Enlisted Men in their Dress Whites, 1942
Gelatin silver print " × "
© The Estate of Edward Steichen
Bank of America Collection

Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen was an American photographer, painter and museum curator who helped transform photography into an art form. Born in Bivange, Luxembourg, Steichen moved with his family to Hancock, Michigan, in 1881. He took up photography in 1895, at the age of sixteen, and was self-taught. In 1900, while en route to study painting in Paris, Steichen met Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz praised Steichen’s painting and also bought three of his photographic prints. In 1902, when Stieglitz was formulating what would become Camera Work, a quarterly photographic journal, he had Steichen design the logo. In 1904, Steichen was one of the first people in the United States to use the Autochrome Lumière color process. He also produced a new style of fashion illustration and portraiture for magazines in the 1920s.

At 38 years of age, Steichen joined the U.S. Army’s photography division during World War I. He had been living in France when the war began and, beyond his ambition to be a war photographer, wanted to help in the fight against German aggression. Specializing in aerial reconnaissance, he finished his commission with the rank of colonel. When the United States entered World War II, Steichen tried to reenlist but was turned down because of his age; he was 61. Finally, in 1943, he was asked if he would like to help with the Navy’s effort to recruit young pilots. He was given the title of Director of the U.S. Naval Photographic Institute. He and his handpicked unit created images of goodwill and patriotism. Steichen was proud of his service. For years after WWII, he listed himself in the New York telephone directory as “Steichen, Col. Edward J.”

At the age of 68, Steichen was named Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Of the many exhibitions he curated, the largest and most famous was The Family of Man, 1955. This exhibition of 503 photographs toured throughout America and overseas, and the book of the same title became a best seller. Steichen’s involvement as a curator helped elevate photography to the status of an acknowledged art form. In 1961, he held an exhibition of his own photography at the Museum of Modern Art. He retired a year later in Connecticut. His autobiography, A Life in Photography, appeared in 1963, the same year he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy.

Horace Bristol
(American, 1908–1997)
Night Strike, 1942–1943
Gelatin silver print, 1942–1943 negative
7 ½" × 9 ¼"
Bank of America Collection

Horace Bristol

Horace Bristol studied at the Art Center Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco in 1933 to pursue a career in photography. While renting a studio near Ansel Adams’ gallery, Bristol befriended members of Group f/64, including Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange. In 1937, he accompanied Lange on expeditions to California’s Central Valley to document the plight of migrant farm workers.

In 1941, Edward Steichen recruited Bristol to work in the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit—a select group of photographers hired to document World War II. Bristol photographed key battles, including the invasions of North Africa, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Following the war, Bristol brought his family to Japan, where he photographed the war’s aftermath as well as traditional Japanese life. In Tokyo, he established the East-West Photo Agency and began selling his photographs of Southeast Asia to virtually every pictorial magazine in Europe and the United States. He also published several books under the East-West name focusing on Pacific Rim countries in transition. In 1956, devastated by his wife’s suicide, Bristol burned most of his photographs and negatives and retired his camera. His remaining photographs were stored and left untouched for nearly thirty years.

Bristol remarried and settled in Ojai, California, where in 1985 his youngest son came home from high school with an assignment to read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Only then, upon recalling the plight of migrant farm workers, did Bristol open the footlockers that held a career’s worth of images. When he saw the tired, dignified faces in his photographs, he couldn’t help but regret that his life’s work had been forgotten. Bristol died in August 1997, but not before seeing his photographs exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe.

Street and Graveyard in Bethlehem

Walker Evans

“Walker Evans’ pictures are quite different. They’re not the accident, he plans them, he walks around, he looks, and all of a sudden—his is a composed job. He takes time.

“Walker was apt to stand back and see a static relationship in most of his pictures. A very, very significant—and I don’t use the word “static” in any unfair manner—Walker could take in the cemetery in a steel town in Pennsylvania, a cross in the cemetery, the streets, crowded houses, steel mills in the background, and it became a very telling picture.

“It’s an interesting picture, because you know that he planned it. That’s not ‘composed’ in the sense that that word is so badly used at times, but he hunts till he finds the right viewpoint, the right place to stand. But he’s telling you a sort of social situation.” xv

— Roy Stryker
Director of Farm Security Administration

Allie Mae Burroughs

Walker Evans

Walker Evans created one of the profoundly iconic images of the American Great Depression with this striking portrait of rural poverty. Photographing extensively in the South, Evans strove to capture a uniquely objective perspective for the Farm Security Administration. He rejected the Administration’s directive to emphasize the optimism of struggling individuals, and instead remained true to his beliefs that documentary photography should present an unbiased and dispassionate view to the world. Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife exemplifies his attitude. The subject’s worry and pain are tangible, and the viewer cannot help but empathize with her. xvi

Jobless on the Edge of a Peafield

Dorothea Lange

Perhaps the photographer most closely identified with the Farm Security Administration and the Great Depression is Dorothea Lange. Her iconic images simultaneously convey the bleak economic situation and the strength of the subjects. The F.S.A. frequently sent her to document migrant farming communities in California’s central valley. The soiled shoes, torn hat, and dirty clothes of the former farmer in Migrant Agricultural Worker Near Holtville, California combine to convey a portrait of a man disappointed yet retaining an element of pride and strength. xix

Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions.

“I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.

“There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” xviii

— Dorothea Lange

Farmer and Sons

Arthur Rothstein

“Well, when my picture of the dust storm was printed widely, over and over and over again, it made people realize that here was a tragedy that was affecting people—it wasn’t just affecting crops, but it was affecting people—the relationships between the dust storms and the migrations of people out of this part of the United States and the way it was affecting them individually.

“This photograph had a great deal of influence on people in the East, for example, who had no contact and no sense of identity with this poor farmer walking across the dusty soil on his farm in Oklahoma—it gave him a sense of identity.

“And it helped put a lot of these soil-conservation practices in, and provide legislation for soil conservation to remedy these conditions.” xvii

— Arthur Rothstein

Child and her Mother

Dorothea Lange

“It was terrible. We had dust storms and droughts. We survived back there as long as we possibly could. I can remember one dust storm back there. We were coming from my grandparents’ in Straton. And as we got closer to home, you could see this big gray matter up in the air. And the minute we got home, we had a storm cellar built with things to eat and everything else in it. We were all taken to the storm cellar right away, and they went in and closed the house all up good. And we stayed down there until the storm was over. It just came to the point where we couldn’t live any more back there.” xx

— From an interview with Lois Adolph
Child depicted in photograph

Mr. and Mrs. Lyman

Jack Delano

Although his work eschewed photographic contrivances, Mr. Delano was not above helping his subjects achieve what he believed was the right pose.

In his autobiography, Photographic Memories, which he completed shortly before his death, he recalled that a Connecticut farming couple he was photographing in 1940 insisted on “staring at the camera, not at all like the jolly people they really were.” To help the couple loosen up, Mr. Delano finally told the man his pants were falling. When the man immediately clutched at his pants, his wife saw that it was a trick of the photographer’s and threw her head back in laughter. Mr. Delano snapped the picture. xxi

Blossom Restaurant

Berenice Abbot

“Many of the city’s transient labor population as well as single men on relief frequent the Bowery. The prices clearly displayed by the restaurant and barber shop are in keeping with the cost of 30 cents for a night’s lodging in the ‘hotel’ above them.”

–Elizabeth McCausland, from Changing New York, 1939

Newsstand

Berenice Abbot

“The newsstand at the southwest corner of 32nd Street and Third Avenue is typical of what the public reads. Over 200 magazines are handled, but it is sales from the metropolitan daily newspapers which keep the business going.”

–Elizabeth McCausland, from Changing New York, 1939

Tenement

Berenice Abbot

“The decade 1880-1890 saw the ‘model tenement’ movement arise in the Improved Dwellings Association and the Tenement House Building Company. The minimum specifications of sixty years are no longer ‘model,’ in fact, they verge on illegality. But at the time of their erection, these buildings represented a definite advance toward the humane in New York’s still present housing problems.”

–Elizabeth McCausland, from Changing New York, 1939

Lebanon Restaurant

Berenice Abbot

“Here in the heart of the Syrian district are dispensed shish kebab, stuffed grape and cabbage leaves, baklava and halva, with demitasses of thick black syrupy ‘Turkish’ coffee. Not only the signs in Arabic letters reveal the ancient culture of the Near East which the Syrians have brought to America with them, but the very traditions of cooking carry on old habits.”

–Elizabeth McCausland, from Changing New York, 1939

End Notes

i Dorothea Lange: The Making of a Documentary Photographer, an interview conducted by Suzanne Riess for the Regional Oral History Office of the University of California Bancroft Library, Berkeley, in 1960–1961, published in 1968
<http://archive.org/stream/documentryphoto00langrich/documentryphoto00langrich_djvu.txt>.

ii Hans Durrer, “Documentary photography in the 1930s: Reflections on James Agee and Walker Evans’ ‘Let us now praise famous men’ and Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s ‘You have seen their faces’,” Soundscapes, vol. 9, May 2006
<http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/VOLUME09/Documentary_photography_in_the_1930s.shtml>.

iii “Lectures and Speeches by Cahill: [Government Support of Art], Radio Talk, undated,” Reel 5290, Frame 1087, Archives of American Art
<http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/government-support-art-radio-talk-183895>.

iv Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard, New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy, 1986 and 1995
<http://www.wwcd.org/policy/US/newdeal.html>.

v “The Works Progress Administration (WPA)”, PBS microsite for American Experience
<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/dustbowl-wpa/>.

vi James Curtis, “Making Sense of Documentary Photography,” Making Sense of Evidence series on History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web
<http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/photos/modern.html>.

vii “Oral history interview with Rexford Tugwell, Jan. 21, 1965,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
<http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-rexford-tugwell-11714>.

viii The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935.

ix James Curtis, “Making Sense of Documentary Photography,” Making Sense of Evidence series on History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web
<http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/photos/modern.html>.

x “Oral history interview with Rexford Tugwell, Jan. 21, 1965,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
<http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-rexford-tugwell-11714>.

xi Library of Congress.

xii “Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker, 1963–1965,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
<http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-roy-emerson-stryker-12480>.

xiii Library of Congress.

xiv Library of Congress.

xv “Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker, 1963-1965,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

xvi “1930: FSA Photography,” Photography & New Media Gallery, Henry Art Gallery
<http://dig.henryart.org/photography-and-new-media/www/innovation/farm-security-administration-fsa-photography/#1>.

xvii “Oral history interview with Arthur Rothstein, May 25, 1964,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

xviii Library of Congress (from Popular Photography, Feb. 1960)
<http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html>.

xix “1930: FSA Photography,” Photography & New Media Gallery, Henry Art Gallery
<http://dig.henryart.org/photography-and-new-media/www/innovation/farm-security-administration-fsa-photography/#3>.

xx “FSA Photographers,” Farming in the 1930s, Wessels Living History Farm
<http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_14.html>.

xxi Margarett Loke, “Jack Delano, 83; Depicted the Depression,” Obituary in The New York Times, August 15, 1997
<http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/15/arts/jack-delano-83-depicted-the-depression.html>.

xxii “Propaganda,” PBS website for The War, directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2007
<http://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_home_communication_propaganda.htm>.

xxiii “Propaganda,” PBS website for The War, directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2007
<http://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_home_communication_propaganda.htm>.

xxiv Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Executive Order 9182 Establishing the Office of War Information,” June 13, 1942, website by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project
<http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16273>.

xxvBerenice Abbott, Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, Ed. Bonnie Yochelson (New York: The New Press, July 8, 2008).