Jack Delano, was one of the group of photographers who fanned out throughout the United States in the 1930’s and 40’s on behalf of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Delano was not as well known as the other F.S.A. photographers, who included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee. Mr. Delano created images of people and places of surpassing elegance and empathy. Certain of his beautifully detailed, crisp black-and-white prints show the Evans influence, but his work also had the verve and deep insight of Lange and the technical curiosity and skill of Lee.
Just about the time you think you’ve seen all there is to see about the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the photographers from the Historical Section, up pops another one!
Somewhere in mid 1937 Roy Stryker, Director of the “Unit,” made a conscious decision to start showing more than just poverty and the negative affects of the Depression, various natural disasters and the dire conditions of America’s farms and the people who worked them. The Resettlement Administration (RA) was tasked with convincing Americans that the government’s programs were needed, were effective and that it was money well spent. Little wonder that the initial efforts of the Historical Unit, in the beginning, concentrated on what was causing the rural displacement of tens of thousands beleaguered Americans, showing everything from the Dust Bowl of the Midwest and West to the displacement of massive flooding, overuse of the land and changing cultural realities, in the South. This was the FSA’s original mission, started a year earlier. But Stryker knew that the problems of rural America were not limited to rural America and that the great displacement and cultural change of America was affecting all parts of the country. He revisited his mission and expanded it to show more than just problems, but to include a hitherto unseen view of how all Americans lived. He assigned his photographers to the task of broadening their coverage and the “Unit” went from a narrow and propagandistic reportage arm of the government to an overall recorder of “American Life.”
By the 1940s, Russell Lee, Roy Stryker and the remaining elements of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) had begun to move onto the next great era of America: World War. The Depression was beginning to wane, the result of an uptick in industrial production gearing for war.
For Lee and company that meant a slight shift in message and a growing modernness of style, more mobile because of the use of smaller cameras and the sheer volume of serious photography being done in the “internet of its era,” the new “picture magazine” of Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, etc.
The last stages of FSA saw the focus and imagery of the FSA turn from exposing the depth of wretchedness to reform and reclamation during the Depression to a message of growing prosperity and recovery, a message that supported the idea that America “was back!”
If you are shooting for the Government there is a reason you are on the payroll. Your “boss” wants you to support a message. The message can be benign or insidious but make no mistake, you will deliver the “message” or you will be freelancing.
No image better personifies this message than Lee’s 1941 image of five African-American boys, outfitted in their finest, posing proudly for Lee’s Rollieflex (the irony of the “Rollie” being a German camera made in Lower Saxony was probably not lost on photographers of the war). In fact, the Rollie and the Leica were the two new technological “stars” coming into use during the war, both using roll film, faster to operate than previous cameras, especially because the speeds of film had also inceased to a whopping ASA of 125. Both were German manufactured. However, the main work horse for most press photographers -especially the military Signal Corps shooters- was the Speed Graphic, big (it took a 4″ X 5″ sheet of film, one sheet at a time), cumbersome and slow to use, but American made.
Even while we fought the war the era of imports (specifically from Germany and Japan) had begun. The full deluge couldn’t and didn’t happen until the war was over and the conquered Axis countries were occupied and their manufacturing bases had begun to produce again, this time, fully modernized and aimed at export to, mainly -insert irony- the United States.