James R. Swensen and Dr. Martha Peacock, Art History
One of America’s most important and extensive photographic collections is housed in the archives of the Library of Congress. These photographs, numbering over 250,000, do not contain images of America’s exploration or development, but rather document the national plight of the Great Depression. They recorded in sharp and often harsh documentary form the exhausted land, the wind belted farmer, and poor children in rags.
This collection amassed under the direction of Roy Stryker, Head of the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (One of Roosevelt’s Alphabet Agencies), included the work of renowned American photographers such as Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorthea Lange, Russell Lee, and Arthur Rothstein, among others. Their assignment was as Stryker claimed to “introduce America to Americans.” They fulfilled their mission by scouring the nation from the cotton fields of the South to the dust bowls of Oklahoma and the meager pea farms of California. Their photographs became living propaganda aimed at supporting new legislation, and designed to dawn the front page of the newspaper. They were created for any medium, which would broadcast the hardships and conditions to the entire nation. Their purpose was purely propagandistic in point and wholly sympathetic in nature.
Among the vast collection, around 400 images document the conditions and people of Utah. Although not hit by the massive crop failures, or dust bowls that plagued the Mid-West, rural Utah was hit hard by the Depression. By 1940, 48,000 Utah families received direct aid, work relief, or Social Security Aid. In 1936, Stryker sent the first envoy to Utah. In this first F.S.A. visit, Dorthea Lange documented the difficulties of Southern and Central Utah, where conditions were so severe that populations in cities such as Escalante, Consumers, and Widtsoe, were heavily aided by the Government, and even resettled into more fruitful areas (See Figure 1).
Four years later in the summer of 1940, Russell Lee was given the assignment to extensively document the Mormon community. Stryker was interested in seeing how the Mormons, with their emphasis on cooperation within the community, were weathering the storm of economic hardship. In fulfilling his assignment, Lee tried to photograph every aspect of Mormon life including Church services, Co-op meetings, and the Co-op Dentist and Doctor. In Lee’s photographs even the poor farmer possesses the necessities of life and leisure. His images served as a testament to Stryker that despite the wave of economic and social failure, not every community within America was drowning.
My research centered on the activities of Lange, Lee, and Rothstein during their assignments in Utah. The images they produced not only provide an essential look into the history of Utah during one of the most traumatic periods of this century, but allow us to look through the lenses of three of America’s finest photographers. Their images are artistic, soulful, and truthful. The Utah photographs, such as Lange’s old woman in Widtsoe (Figure 1), allow the viewer to sympathize with the subject while not depleting them of their human dignity. A dignity which has always been attached to this state.
Most of my research involved searching through the large green filing cabinets, which house the F.S.A. collection in the Library of Congress. Earlier searches revealed little evidence of F.S.A. activities in Utah. However, on my return to the Library in January of this year, I found hundreds of images, which I then copied and cataloged. I was also able to procure 10 photographs from the original negatives. My catalog and the original photographs will be invaluable aids in the future study of their artistic and historical significance. My research has also included interviews and visits to the original sites.
Together these photographs contained an artistic scope, which I had previously not imagined. What had began, as a small curiosity became a treasure of future study. The research which began with this grant will now serve as the foundation for my master thesis, which will center not only on the artistic merit of these photographs, but will also involve creating a museum proposal, and an opportunity to curate the photographs. All of these efforts will then hopefully lead to a traveling museum exhibit of F.S.A. activities in Utah. Lastly, this process will provide invaluable experience for me as I pursue a position in the business world of art.