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FDR and the Depression
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Depression Era Documentary Photography Key Events Maps Transcript Webography
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Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother was one of the most famous photographs taken during the Depression. Working for the government, she and a cadre of other photographers sought to document the hardships under which Americans were suffering. In 1937, the Resettlement Administration became the Farm Security Administration. Under the directorship of Roy Stryker, the FSA photography unit employed a number of the finest photographers in America, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Ben Shahn, and Arthur Rothstein. The group created over 250,000 images and distributed them for widest possible circulation in national magazines, local newspapers, museum exhibitions, and books.

The work of the FSA photographers embodied a tension between the desire to document what was taking place and the desire to influence what was being done. The photographers walked a fine line between objective neutrality and subjective engagement. Rothstein thought of his pictures as both documents and art. A photographer frames, lights, and crops an image to achieve a desired effect, but that, he believed, did not make it a fiction.

The relationship between recording and shaping, inherent in all image-making, is a complicated one, and some commentators felt the FSA photographers went too far. "What you've got are not photographers," commented one critic. "They're a bunch of sociologists with cameras." Others, however, defended the work as "pure record, not propaganda."

Rothstein's skull picture quickly became part of a larger political controversy. Opponents of Roosevelt's New Deal policies in the Republican Dakotas seized upon it as evidence of Democratic manipulation of the truth. A Fargo newspaper denounced the picture as "phony." One writer condemned the entire FSA project as a "ghastly fake, based on fake ideas . . . and promoted by fake methods similar to those used by ordinary confidence men."


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