POPPING UP OUT OF NOWHERE

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Blowing horns on Bleeker Street on
New Year’s Day.  January 1943, 
by Majory Collins/OWI

Text by Bruce Berman

 

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.”

As the gathering storm of war approached, his vision perfectly matched the needs of the government’s in rallying the people to unity and pride of country. When the historical unit transitioned to the Office of War Information (OWI), Stryker was able to retain some photographers from the FSA -Russell Lee, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein prominent among them- and added others, some on permanent contract and others briefly passing through.

Some, such as Majory Collins are not even listed in most histories of the OWI. Little is known about her. Born in 1912 in New York City, she studied with well known photographer Ralph Steiner, lived in Greenwich Village in the mid 1930s, and did occasional work for Stryker at OWI. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, Andrea Fisher says about Marjory Collins: “Research thus far has revealed only fragments about the backgrounds and concerns of the lesser known photographers (whose lives) have sadly remained completely obscured.”

This “fragment” is an indication of Collin’s work,  a mere taste that begs for further research into her, and other obscure photographers that Stryker used in his “propaganda” unit. The work of Roy Stryker remained consistent and strong, from the initial FSA work in 1936 through the end of the war in 1945 and he played his photographers like a great maestro, his wand occasionally pointing to someone we’ve never heard of or known, often pulling a strong “note” out of obscurity, a photographer on the back row, so to speak, his symphony and his vision showing American Life, each photographer and instrument, a “voice” in his enduring Concert of America.

 

For more on Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI: http://nyti.ms/1Fo43dG

 

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