American Memory
Exploring the FSA Photo Archive 1935-1945

America 1935. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Best, if you were lucky enough to have snagged a job as a photographer with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting government programs designed to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Worst, if you were on the other side of the lens. The U.S. was heavily rural and small-town; millions of people had lost their farms and homes as crops failed due to over-cultivation, drought, and dust storms. Blown out, baked out and broke, they wereĘforced to drift aimlessly from place to place, looking for whatever work could be found, desperate to just stay alive.

Out of those dark days and then into brighter ones, FSA photographers shot over 164,000 black and white photographs and a small collection of color images. Though they were hired to photograph government-sponsored work projects, their pictures went far beyond that, showing the soul of America and the courage of its people that perfectly defines the U.S. from 1935ö1945. Even in the midst of hardship, the indomitable spirit of the nation shines through in images of family closeness, folks enjoying simple pleasures, and pride reflected in the faces of those who were getting their lives together again as the governmentâs New Deal magic began to work.

The guiding light of the FSA photo unit was Roy Stryker, a former college teaching assistant. During the eight years he headed the project (which in 1942 became part of the Office of War Information), 44 photographers were hired, fired, and rehired (some several times) and others quit. But about 16 stayed long enough to produce most of the images, acquiring distinctive visual styles as they exposed negative after negative. Stryker was not a photographer and was frequently heavy-handed both with his staff and with pictures that didnât meet his esthetic or political requirementsö heâd punch a big hole through negatives he didnât like. But he was also astute enough to realize that aside from showcasing goverment-run projects, he also had to show the plight of the people the programs were designed to help. And these are the images ölike Dorothea Langeâs classic photo of a despairing migrant mother that, more than 70 years late, have endured.

Because the project was funded by the government, the pictures are not copyrighted; you can download them as digitized files and make your own prints of those you like. Unfortunately, relatively few of the black and white photographs have been scanned at high enough resolutions to allow really big pictures to be printed. Most of them are TIFF files but they are small TIFF files, ranging from 100k to 300k. However, with some Photoshop interpolation, you can get 6 x 8-inch prints, maybe even a bit larger.

To display these smaller images so they stand out, try framing them with an over-sized matte around them. Or assemble a montage of images in a larger frame. You can also order prints from the collection but they are pricey when search and shipping fees are addedö about US $56 for a black and white 8 x 10. Once in hand, though, you can scan them to make larger prints.

The real gems in the FSA collection are the little-known color pictures that some of the photographers shot, and which are showcased here. There are about 1,600 of them, grouped together for easy access. Using the only color film then available öKodachrome, with an ASA (ISO) of 10 (thatâs ătenä)ö some of the photographers werenât as comfortable with the new medium as they were with black and white; nevertheless some marvelous pictures were recorded. Beautiful scenics reminiscent of Currier & Ives lithographs, powerful industrial photos, quirky bits of roadside Americana, and striking images of people at work and play that look fresh off the canvas of Norman Rockwell, bound for covers of the Saturday Evening Post.

Most of these have been digitized at ultra high resolutions (in fact, a bit of overkill) and you can download beautifully detailed TIFF files ranging from 40MB to over 200MB. Once in your imaging program theyâre easy to enhance and you can bring out nuances that would have been lost in the photographic printing processes of their time. Since youâre not going to be displaying pictures that are six feet wide, remember to downsample them after you choose their output size. Select a ppi of not more than 300 so your inkjet printer wonât choke. I ran Premium Lustre paper through my Epson 2200 at 1440 dpi to produce some 11.5 x 15-inch pictures from scanned 4x5-inch color transparencies and slides. The results were absolutely breathtaking; even prints from 35mm slide scans were sharp, virtually grainless, and had brilliant color.

A few classic black and white negatives have also been scanned at resolutions high enough to make big blow-ups. The famous Migrant Mother picture is one of them along with others youâll find by following links on the home page of the American Memory site to ăPopular Requestsä and ăStaff Selections.ä There are also more hi-res scans but finding them is hit-or-miss. For example all of David Eisendrathâs pictures are hi-res and there may also be others by different photographers scattered throughout the vast collection but youâll have to hunt for them.

Some black and white pictures give you a choice of downloading a scan from a print, from the original negative, or from a copy negative. Though the image from a print usually looks better on the web, the scan from the negative will give you much more to work with once you get it into your imaging program. Scans from copy negatives are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Usually some sharpening will be necessary whichever download you choose. I used NIK Sharpener Pro (Inkjet version) and got excellent results. You can also experiment with unsharp mask values. Either way, youâll usually have to adjust brightness and contrast to tweak some of the pictures; just make changes until the photo looks good to you.

Navigating the FSA archive is an arduous task due to the sheer enormity of it. But if you do it methodically, say, a few hundred pictures a night, the rewards will be great. Itâll be a long-term project that will open your eyes to the way America lived during those turbulent times and the courage that was needed to endure. If youâve read John Steinbeckâs Grapes Of Wrath, these are the pictures that come to mind when Ma Joad says: ăWe ainât gonna die out. People is goinâ onö changinâ a little, maybe, but goinâ right on.ä

The FSA photographers were in it for the long haul; they werenât doing a one day shoot for a Day-In-The-Life book. On the road for months at a time and expected to follow shooting scripts that were sometimes 20 pages long, their unexposed film had to be mailed back to Washington for processing. They never saw what they had shot until they received a package of prints weeks later. Then they spent hours captioning their pictures before mailing them back again. It was exhausting work performed in numbing cold and sweltering heat, frequently coupled with bad food, primitive accommodations, and recalcitrant subjects who were suspicious of their motives.

Going through the collection, you canât help but admire the tremendous dedication of these camera artists as they set out to capture a reflection of bad times and the better ones that followed. To be able to print and display their images for your personal pleasure is a great posthumous gift from them to you. Take advantage of it; they would be touched by your appreciation of their accomplishments.

öArthur H. Bleich (arthur@dpcorner.com) is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. www.dpcorner.com



© 2004 D.C. Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.