A new traveling exhibition opens at the New York State Museum on October 17 showcasing the works of a legendary group of photographers who documented the lives and struggles of Americans enduring the Great Depression. “This Great Nation Will Endure,” open through March 14, 2010, features more than 150 images of America taken between 1935 and 1942 by the legendary photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). This remains the largest documentary photography project ever undertaken. The photographs include some of the most familiar and powerful images of the nation to emerge from the Depression era. Many have reached iconic status in American culture.
Curated and designed by staff at the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Library and Museum in Hyde Park, the exhibition features images from every region of the nation, culled from the enormous FSA photography collection (numbering tens of thousands of images) at the Library of Congress. Included are photographs taken during the 1930s and
1940s by Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans, Russell Lee, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott and Jack Delano.
The FSA was a New Deal agency created by President Roosevelt in 1937 to help American farmers and farm laborers who were confronting economic depression and natural disaster, including the ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. It developed out of an earlier agency called the Resettlement Administration (RA) for which its director, Rexford Tugwell, had established a publicity department to document rural poverty and government efforts to alleviate it. That department included a photographic unit called the “Historical Section,” administrated by former Columbia University economics instructor, Roy Stryker. To accomplish the agency’s goals, Stryker enlisted a group of men and women who today comprise a virtual “Who’s Who” of 20th-century documentary photography. The RA and its “Historical Section” were merged into the newly created FSA in 1937. Many of its
photographers later forged careers that helped define photojournalism at magazines like Life and Look.
Most of the photographs in the exhibition depict rural life and hardships but they also include many images of town and city life. The FSA created a very diverse
record of American life during the 1930s and early 1940s, including images of hardship, endurance, hope, recovery, migration, recreation and community life. The photographs provide visual affirmation of President Roosevelt’s bold assertion in
his first inaugural address, delivered at the lowest point of the Great Depression: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper … the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The exhibition also includes a specially commissioned, short documentary film that explores the work of four of the most prominent FSA photographers. There also is a soundtrack of folk music sung by migrant workers that was recorded in migrant worker camps in California in 1940-41. An interactive computer program allows visitors to explore entire series of images shot by FSA photographers during individual
photo assignments. Also featured is a short silent video that depicts the ways in which FSA photography was used in newspapers and magazines of the 1930s and 1940s.
Photo: Lower Manhattan seen from the S.S. Coamo leaving New York, by Jack Delano.Courtesy Library of Congress