Documenting the Documentarians

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Fleeing a Dust Storm, Arthur Rothstein, 1936/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

I’m back from vacation. Over the break I took an advance look at a few upcoming books and tv programs, and I’ll blog about a few of them in the weeks to come. The one you should know about first is Documenting the Face of America, a film about Roy Stryker and the F.S.A. photographers that airs tonight at 8 PM on PBS.

It was Stryker of course who assembled the government-sponsored team of photographers who brought back pictures of America during the Great Depression. Many of the men and women he recruited would become famous for the work they did with him. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee — all of them came out of Stryker’s shop. He wasn’t a photographer himself. He was a Columbia University economics instructor who had grown up on a small farm in Colorado. But in 1935 he went to Washington to work for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency that had been formed to help farmers forced off their land by the Depression. (It later morphed into the Farm Security Administration — hence the FSA label.) Stryker was brought in to head the agency’s “historical unit”, an opportunity he ran with.

Once you get past the sometimes annoying musical soundtrack — cool jazz, Enya-style vocalizing, the occasional rock guitar — the PBS film, which was written and directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler, is pretty gratifying. But it has to cram a whole lot of history into a single hour, so it can only flick at some of the issues that surrounded Stryker’s unique enterprise. His heart was in the right place every time. He wanted to expose the exploitation of migrant and tenant farmers, fight racism and show Americans the severe poverty in the almost hidden country of their own countryside, which is why the anti-New Deal wing of conservatives in Congress hated him. But the idea of a federal agency producing the definitive picture of a social crisis today would make a lot of people distinctly uneasy. Would anybody but George Bush want the “official” version of New Orleans after Katrina?

It also takes this film until the halfway point to explain how and where the FSA pictures were distributed and published, a crucial point that should have been cleared up much sooner. For the record, they were made freely available to book publishers, toured in exhibitions, and, what was probably most important, sent out to magazines and newspapers, which rarely had the resources to field their own photographers all around the country. In an era before television, the FSA images were, in their way, television.

And on television, the pictures look pretty smashing. We’ve seen some of these photographs many times but I’ve never seen them looking so clear and almost contemporary as they do in the beautiful high resolution transfers here. I only regret that the show doesn’t give us the utterly modern-looking color pictures that the FSA started producing around 1939 and into the early 40s, when it was absorbed (and basically dissolved) into the War Information Office. You can find those in Bound for Glory, a really fascinating book published four years ago by Abrams and the Library of Congress, which is where the FSA photo collection now resides. Check it out.

Meanwhile, there’s a website about the PBS show here.