The Renowned Photographs of the Farmers Security Administration
In the middle of President Roosevelt's "New Deal," a group was assembled to fight the effects of poverty among rural areas … during the Great Depression. However, the Farm Security Administration isn't remembered for its rehabilitation efforts so much as its photographs and the team who captured them. Their work not only defined modern photojournalism and painted a picture of the Great Depression, but changed the world.
The Great Depression began in Georgia during the late 1920s with effects that lasted until the end of WWII. Chronic unemployment became the norm and money didn’t circulate. Poverty was prevalent, especially in the Deep South, and stories of “hard times” were recounted over and over to later generations.
Natives of today’s Lake Country counties grew up hearing “Great Depression” stories from their parents, grandparents, and others who had lived those difficult times. The experiences were profoundly influential and surely played a role in our region’s independent mindsets and strong resilience.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted employment and loan programs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 and the Farmers Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. These federal programs were devised to help alleviate poverty. Struggling farmers could borrow money to purchase land, animals, and farm equipment and have opportunities to resettle on more productive farmland.
Ambitious public works projects across America employed thousands of unemployed workers. Projects ranged from infrastructure improvements to cultural endeavors. And, reportedly, over 5,000 artists were hired at an average pay between $23 and $35.
Aligned with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FSA began its photography documentation program between 1935 and 1944 with a primary objective of “garnering support for Roosevelt’s New Deal through the sympathetic depictions of the rural poor and showing the benefits of FSA relief.” (Salerno) A greater and more enduring outcome would result.
For decades, the incredible images taken by FSA photographers have appeared in national magazines, prominent newspapers, and fine arts exhibits. This group of talented photographers included James Agee, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks, who became renowned for their Depression-era work and literary accomplishments.
In our region, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, and Marion Post Wolcott traveled to Greene County during 1937 to 1941 to photograph rural scenes and local people. They also became acclaimed for their work and their backgrounds are very interesting.
Jack Delano, a Ukrainian-American, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and became the official photographer for the Puerto Rican government in 1946. His talents were many: book illustrator, composer, and graphic consultant. According to David Gonzalez of The New York Times, “His early work had him following the trail of migrant workers from Florida to Maryland, a continuing project on Greene County, Ga., tobacco farmers in Connecticut, and industry and agriculture in New England.”
Marion Post, later Marion Post Wolcott, was born in New Jersey and studied in Vienna. While in Europe, she witnessed the rise of Nazism before returning to the states to work for The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. She left this newspaper to become FSA’s first female photographer and traveled alone during the Depression, shooting scenes of poverty and despair.
When the FSA photographers arrived in Greene County, they were already familiar with seeing poverty across America. They sometimes lived with migrant workers and rural farm families in order to gain the trust of people. Also, permission was often requested before pictures were taken. FSA photographers held great empathy for their subjects despite the differences in education and upbringing.
Today, explaining this period of history is not easy. Great Depression images seem surreal, especially when considering the current affluence that exists around Lakes Sinclair and Oconee and in surrounding towns. Words don’t guarantee the best explanations while photographs can reveal a fuller and more unvarnished portrayal.
Incidentally, few FSA photos were taken in Putnam County, but a number of images were taken in Baldwin County, mostly with a focus on the architecture of buildings and homes in Milledgeville. I suspect that the photographers found Greene County’s agricultural and social images to be emblematic scenes taking place all over rural America during this period.
FDR felt that photography could be used as documentation and a way to promote more government spending for farm improvement and stabilization. However, the results of the project turned into something that still endures.
“It's a story. A story of a time we've passed and an era bygone,” adds Salerno. “Not just one of older technologies and different political landscapes, but how we viewed the world around us. It's a documentary, it's art and maybe most importantly - it's our history.”
Sources and Additional Reading
To view Great Depression photos, keyword “Library of Congress Prints and Online Catalog” or www.loc.gov/pictures , in a search engine, and then enter “Greene County” in the search box of the LOC page. A large number of photographs are available for viewing.
Recommended online articles:
A selection of informative articles are available by simply keywording “Depression Era Photography.” For this feature, the following articles served as primary sources” ”5 Depression-Era Photographs that Galvanized Social Change” (Aperture); “Georgia in the Great Depression” A digital archive curated by Brian Brown/Vanishing Media; and “How FSA Photography Changed the World” by Ronny Selerno (Evanto Tuts+).
The most acclaimed book involving the FSA project is “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans. An American Classic, published in 1941. This lengthy book documents the lives of three Alabama tenant farm families and includes FSA images and prose that is quite literary.
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Article by Hank Segars, photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, published in Lakelife magazine, May-June 2022.