on The Likes of Us: America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration, by Stu Cohen and Peter Bacon Hales (David R. Godine

In the late 1960s, the Boston-based art and cultural critic Stu Cohen became interested in the contemporary photography of Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. “Photographers like these declared their lineage,” writes Peter Bacon Hales, “to Robert Frank in the ‘50s, to the Farm Security Administration photographers of the ‘30s and early ‘40s, to the ‘street’ snapshooters of the beginning of the twentieth century.” Cohen was drawn to the filing cabinets of the Library of Congress, home to 170,000 photographic images commissioned by the FSA. fsa7.jpgHe examined and ordered prints from the Library’s Photoduplication Division. Back then, one could obtain high-quality prints for just a few dollars. His goal was to publish a selection along with a monograph on the FSA photos as social documentary, art, and government propaganda. Hales suggests that the Beacon Press had intended to bring out the book but new priorities intervened. The material was unpublished in 1995 when Cohen died. But now, David Godine has finally brought the project to fruition. Although The Likes of Us serves as a general introduction to the FSA works, it is also a book of particular selection and special treats. Peter Bacon Hales ably completed Cohen’s role as editor, provided a foreword, and ensured the quality of reproduction.

fsq12.gifThe purpose of the FSA was to alleviate the social and economic distress, including rural poverty, caused by the beleaguered agricultural climate. Roy Stryker (1883-1975), an ex-instructor of economics at Columbia, was recruited to run the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration, an FSA forerunner. He had grown up on a small farm outside Montrose, Colorado. Cohen wrote, “Through accident, migration from other agencies, and some conscious effort, a small core of camera operators was formed and, over a very short time – months, really – developed a subject of investigation, a working method, a sense of mission, and the beginnings of a philosophy, bound up in the idea of visual documentation with a camera, of the unseen or at least inadequately publicized everyday life of Americans under duress.

Cohen has given us one of the most lucid discussions about documentary photography – the flux between the “fact” produced by the camera and the deliberate choice of the photographer. The historical dimension – centering on the tension between the aims of the administration and the temperaments of the shooters – dovetails nicely with his views on the artistic quality of the images and the idiosyncracies of the different photographers, who fluctuated between conveying factual content and emotion or aura. They were charged with showing the conditions, but they had leeway – or simply took the liberty -- to convey what those conditions felt like.FSA1.jpg

fsa6.jpgAs FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein later recalled, "It was our job to document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them." By way of depicting a typical approach, Cohen looks into Rothstein’s photo of a female sharecropper and her children posed in the doorway of their cabin:

“Rothstein’s photography is direct and seemingly unmanipulated … Yet the ‘honesty’ of Rothstein’s photograph was different from sheer evidentiary value … When the photographer tried to get the very expression so clearly present in the picture, Rothstein found that the careworn face brightened up with ‘Sunday-snapshot smiles.’ To counter this he obtained the assistance of one of the woman’s neighbors, who engaged her in conversation, presumably conversation of a worrisome nature, while Rothstein hung back quietly … When the conversation produced the desired expression, the camera – in this case a small Leica – clicked.”

Like other realist artforms, documentary functions through the conceit that it lets actual conditions speak for themselves, self-generated and unmediated.

When he took his photos of Alabama sharecroppers in 1936, Walker Evans used a cumbersome and complex portrait camera that captured fine details but required his subjects to strike formal poses. The resulting photographs ennobled those people, even as Evans’ approach was less concerned by necessity with portraying specifically emotive facial expression or suggestive body posture.

fsa5_0.gifCohen includes the work from specific assignments of six photographers. So, we see Dorothea Lange’s images of threshing oats in Indiana and migrants in California, Marion Post Wolcott’s photos taken at Miami Beach and in West Virginia, and photos from Pennsylvania, Alabama and Louisiana by Walker Evans. Ben Shahn, Sheldon Dick, and Russell Lee round out the collection. Dick’s section portrays a sit-in strike in Flint, Michigan – including an image of national guardsmen with a machine gun overlooking at Chevrolet factory. There is also a section on New Orleans with contributions from Carl Mydans and Evans, Lee, Wolcott and Shahn. Spread throughout are quotes from letters from the field, subsequent remarks by the photographers, itineraries, and scripts – lists of “pictures needed for files

fsa8.jpgThe FSA’s black-and-white photographs achieved more than capturing a moment of history. They played a major role in heightening the element of self-awareness in American culture, exemplified by the sudden popularity and growth of Life and other magazines. In 1939 Life claimed it was “the greatest success in publishing history” and attributed its appeal to its “new picture-and-word editorial technique” which “makes the truth about the world we live in infinitely more exciting, more easily absorbed, more alive than it ever has been made before.” The FSA photos, many of which were published in magazines, accelerated the perception of an American culture comprised of striking images. Inspiring a new unity of response and conclusion, perhaps these iconic photos also made us more vulnerable to those with express agendas to influence mass perception.

[Published October 1, 2008, 183 pp., 175 photographs, $50.00]