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minimum length requirement is 250 words1. Describe the role of photographers in journalistic practice in the FSA
and/or LIFE magazine. What aspects of this role did Magnum change?2. Explain the purpose and methodology of Magnum. What led to the
founding of this organization? 3. Discuss a sample project from any photographer from the FSA or LIFE, as
well as one from Magnum. (Note: You are not limited to the photographers
included in this module, but can complete additional research on your
own.) For EACH project, describe the overall purpose or theme, the
methods of the photographer in capturing the project, and how the photographs
were presented to the public. Be sure to explain the role of the
photographer in the various aspects of the process.
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1. Describe the role of photographers in journalistic practice in the FSA and/or LIFE magazine.
What aspects of this role did Magnum change?
2. Explain the purpose and methodology of Magnum. What led to the founding of this
organization?
3. Discuss a sample project from any photographer from the FSA or LIFE, as well as one from
Magnum. (Note: You are not limited to the photographers included in this module, but can
complete additional research on your own.) For EACH project, describe the overall purpose or
theme, the methods of the photographer in capturing the project, and how the photographs were
presented to the public. Be sure to explain the role of the photographer in the various aspects of
the process.
Documentary Photography in America,
1930’s-1940’s
In the 1930’s, America was fighting for its life. The Great Depression led to one in four adults
being unemployed, thousands of banks had failed, and the national output plummeted to around
half of what it had been before 1930. In rural states, farmlands could not withstand years of
overuse and mismanagement combined with drought conditions; as a result, thousands of
struggling farming families packed up and moved West, fleeing the Dust Bowl, looking for work
and food.
Arthur Rothstein, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936
A series of economic measures called the New Deal was set in motion following Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s election as president in 1933, and various agencies were instructed to produce
pictures to win public support for the program. As we have seen in several previous examples,
the camera could be used as a powerful tool for social reform; as such, in 1935 the US
government turned to photographers for help in fighting the Depression. This was accomplished
under the Resettlement Administration, later named the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Led by Roy Stryker, an economist from Columbia University and head of the FSA’s Historical
Section, this agency was charged with documenting not only the agency’s activities, but
American rural life in depth. In Stryker’s own words, this group of photographers “introduced
Americans to America” and an entire generation to “the reality of its own time and place in
history.” Throughout the agency’s 7-year life, 11 photographers worked in various regions of the
country, producing a total of nearly 270,000 photographs.
Dorothea Lange, Migrant
Mother, 1936
Of those hundreds of thousands, this is perhaps the famous, and certainly the most resonant
image. The full story of how Dorothea Lange, a portrait photographer from San Francisco,
happened to capture this image has reached almost mythic status. In essence, on a whim, Lange
turned off the main road to a camp of pea-pickers in Nipomo, California, where she found this
woman with several of her children in a make-shift encampment. Lange went straight to one
family (out of hundreds), making a total of six exposures within 10 minutes.
—> For full details, read this excerpt (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. from
“No Caption Needed,” from the University of Chicago Press website.
Lange had promised not to publish the photo, and use it only to obtain aid. Food was indeed
rushed to the camp when bureaucrats saw the images, but two of the pictures were published,
with this one becoming iconic almost overnight. Indeed, for many Americans, Migrant Mother
is the defining image of the Great Depression.
When Dorothea Lange made her promise to the migrant family that their images would not be
published, that certainly was a noble intention, however, it was not her decision. Remember that
Roy Stryker was leading the FSA, and he held complete power over whether or not an image
would be used, how it would be cropped and/or captioned, and what type of story the image
might illustrate. Truly, the photographers had no control over how their work might be used, as
they simply sent their negatives straight to Washington, D.C.
Two other notable FSA photographers are Ben Shahn and Russell Lee. Comparing their work
illustrates just how much freedom these photographers were given to create images for the
government.
left: Ben Shahn, A destitute family, Ozark Mountains area, 1935 / right: Russell Lee, Lincoln County, Oklahoma,
June 1939
In the examples above, the subject matter is exactly the same: destitute families who are leaving
the midwest in search of work and better lives out West, yet the guiding principles underlying
and consequently conveyed through each image could not be more different. Shahn, who
previously had a successful career as a painter, understood the effectiveness of adding a dramatic
or emotional element to his images. The family in his photograph appears to be hanging on by a
thread, desperate for a new life. Whereas Lee felt his primary purpose was to photograph people
as they were, engaged in their daily lives. In his photograph we see a peaceful moment on their
journey; indeed, Lee’s images tend to emphasize the strength, resolution, and dignity of his
subjects.
One FSA photographer, Walker Evans, is considered to be one of the most influential artists of
the 20th century. Evans is celebrated as the progenitor of the documentary tradition in American
photography, with an extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past.
Walker Evans, General Store Interior, Moundville, Alabama, 1936
Evans’ principle subject matter was the vernacular – the indigenous expressions of a people
found within shared environments. In other words, the vernacular can be described as the “feel”
of a place. Consider how here in LA, different neighborhoods have a different feel, a different
kind of flavor to them. Venice is different from Beverly Hills is different from Downtown LA,
etc. Could you describe how exactly each of those regions are different? They are all mainly
comprised of the same elements – businesses, homes, people living their daily lives – but each has
its own unique character. Consider also how all the variations of Los Angeles still retain a
distinctive “southern California” character; you would never confuse Hollywood, CA, with
Hollywood, FL. Walker Evans made that insubstantial essence – the vernacular – his primary
subject.
—> For supplemental information, see this article (Links to an external site.)Links to an
external site. by the Smithsonian, “Walker Evans Wrote the Story of America with His Camera”
Walker Evans traveled to the South and documented the condition of the land, the plight of
tenant farmers, their houses, their belongings, the way they worked, their crops, their schools and
churches and stores. Much of what he photographed was squalid, but his presentation was
always dignified. He worked with a large format camera, in which the negative is typically 8″ x
10″ rather than the typical 35 millimeter. This produces extremely crisp images, with details
captured in great precision; it also usually means a much slower, more thoughtful working
method.
In the mid-1930’s Evans traveled to Alabama with his friend, James Agee, who was comissioned
to write an article for Fortune magazine on tenant farmers. Although the magazine ultimately
rejected the long text, what emerged in time from this collaboration was a 500-page book filled
with Agee’s text and Evans’ photographs. Described as a “lyric journey to the limits of direct
observation,” for some this project encapsulated the whole tragedy of the Great Depression.
Published as “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Evans’ images are described as intimate,
transcendent, and enigmatic.
Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs), 1936 / right: Interior of Burroughs Home,
1936
Walker Evans worked on other projects during his time with the FSA, an unusual choice not
shared by any other FSA photographer, perhaps due in part to his ideological differences with
Roy Stryker. The FSA Historical Section functioned like a giant public relations agency whose
photographs appeared in all the major magazines. Stryker, an economist who openly
acknowledged his lack of experience with photography, wanted a large amount of raw material
sent in by his field photographers in order to further the FSA’s agenda; Evans, however, was
unconcerned with ideologies and itineraries, preferring instead to distill the essence of American
life from the simple and the ordinary.
In September 1938 Walker Evans was featured in the first solo photography exhibition at the
Museum of Modern Art, with the accompanying publication, “American Photographs,” quickly
established as a landmark for fine art photographers even today.
—>Read more about this exhibit and publication on the NYTimes website (Links to an external
site.)Links to an external site., which includes a slideshow of 19 photographs.
The documentary tradition in the 1930’s went far beyond the FSA, however, with the rise of
photographically illustrated magazines such as LIFE.
Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck Dam project, first issue of LIFE, 1936
Relaunched in 1936 by publisher Henry Luce, LIFE was the first completely photographic
American news magazine. Luce’s vision, to “edit pictures into a coherent story – to make an
effective mosaic out of the fragmentary documents which pictures are…” soon came to dominate
photojournalism. In this style of story-telling, known commonly as the photo essay, the images
primarily tell the story alone, with the captions providing specific details.
Page spreads from the inaugural, Nov. 23, 1936, issue of LIFE magazine
The subject of the first cover image and of the photo essay example above is the building of the
Fort Peck Dam, a signature New Deal project, near Billings, Montana, as photographed by
Margaret Bourke-White. Her remarkable career as a photojournalist spans decades and covers
events from around the globe. (Her career is featured in this module’s “Profile” page.)
The first African-American staff photographer for LIFE, Gordon Parks, was one of the seminal
figures of 20th century photography. Parks was a humanitarian with a deep commitment to
social justice.
Gordon Parks with the Fontenelle children, Untitled, Harlem, 1967, from Harlem Family
During his time with LIFE magazine, which spanned over two decades, Parks chronicled
subjects related to racism and poverty, as well as taking memorable pictures of celebrities and
politicians, including Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
—> For a brief biography and full archive of his work, see the website (Links to an external
site.)Links to an external site. for the Gordon Parks Foundation.
His most famous image, however (see below), was taken during his time working for Roy
Stryker and the FSA.
Gordon Parks, Ella Watson (American Gothic), 1942
—> Recommended: to hear Gordon Parks describe this photograph in his own words, watch
this video (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.
Note: his portion begins at 18:12 and lasts until 21:04; closed captions are not available.
Let’s take a closer look at Gordon Parks’ first contribution to LIFE magazine, a story entitled
“Harlem Gang Leader,” published in the Nov 1, 1948, issue.
Gordon Parks, Harlem Gang Leader, 1948, LIFE magazine
As this Google Arts & Culture page (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. about
this photo-essay explains:
Parks was introduced to Leonard “Red” Jackson by a plainclothes policeman named Jimmy
Morrow (who appears in the magazine). Parks waited two weeks, establishing trust with Jackson
before he ever pulled out his camera. Over the next several weeks, Parks produced hundreds of
negatives of Jackson, members of his gang, his family, and other aspects of his life in Harlem.
As was typical of a photographer working on assignment for Life, Parks then handed over the
negatives to the magazine’s technicians. From that point on, he had little control over the use and
presentation of his pictures, which was left in the hands of editors.
When Red saw the printed version of the story he said, “Damn, Mr. Parks, you made a criminal
out of me.”
Gordon Parks knew first-hand the difficulties that young African-Americans faced in America at
that time, especially if they lived in impoverished communities. As he explained in a later
interview, Parks saw Red and his friends as simply “good, poor kids gone wrong.” He felt that if
he could “show enough of the kids’ home background on film, he can . . . show the way out of
juvenile crime to any social agency which wants to wipe it out.” Yet LIFE’s editors selected
images that underscored violence, aggression, and futility.
—> Recommended: click on the link above to the Google Arts page to see numerous
photographs, including contact sheets, made by Gordon Parks for this essay.
An article (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. on the Time/Life website from
2014 states, “The editorial process that created ‘Harlem Gang Leader’ was far from unique…
Parks was well aware of the compromises that he would be required to make at LIFE , and he
made them willingly. The magazine provided him with a platform that he coveted—one that
allowed him to place issues of social justice in front of tens of millions of largely white, middleclass readers.”
Indeed, LIFE’s weekly circulation peaked at about six million subscribers by 1960, and Gordon
Parks used this as a platform for images focused upon poverty, civil rights, and urban life. As he
explained in the video clip above, he saw that the camera could be a very powerful instrument
against discrimination, against poverty, and against racism.
This sharpened look into human affairs is a key characteristic of the documentary tradition in
America in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Led by the FSA and LIFE magazine, the clear-eyed, subjectoriented style became ascendant in newspapers and magazines. Many of the iconic images
created at this time, such as Migrant Mother, outlived their original circumstances and remain
touchstones in American culture.
Photojournalism
In the decades following World War II a new style of photography emerged, one that was
concerned, independently minded, and critically engaged with its subject. These photojournalists
were no longer neutral observers, but rather were presenting distinctly personal visions from an
informed, experiential view.
Leonard Freed, from Black in White America, October 1964
However, as we learned in the last section, photographers working for the FSA and/or LIFE
magazine had no control over the use and presentation of their images. Naturally, many
photojournalists wanted more control of their work, as well as adequate compensation. To that
end, Magnum Photos (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., an international
photographic cooperative owned by its photographer-members, was founded in 1947 by four
photographers: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour.
Under Magnum’s cooperative model, photographers owned their own work, so they could
license its reproduction to multiple agents at once and continue to make sales from it in the
future. Further, Magnum was structured to allow its members to pursue stories of their own
choosing, spend as much time as they wanted on a particular topic, and be as involved as they
desired in the editing, captioning, and publication of their work.
Let’s take a closer look at two of Magnum’s founders; first, Henri Cartier-Bresson:
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Thurles, Ireland, 1952
Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of photography’s most influential and original masters, bestknown for his theory of the “decisive moment.” He defined this concept as “the simultaneous
recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise
organization of forms which gave that events its proper expression.” Or, put more simply, it is
that split second that reveals the larger truth of a situation.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, left: Beijing, China, 1948 | right: Luxor, Egypt, 1950
Cartier-Bresson is also celebrated for his uncanny talent of seizing lasting images from the flux
of experience, and for his ability to transform reality into something mysterious and compelling.
At age 22, he began traveling, and for nearly half a century he was on the road most of the time.
For that reason, the geographical range of his work is notoriously wide.
—> Recommended: read pages 514-515 in the textbook for a profile of Cartier-Bresson, or see
this interactive feature (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. on MOMA’s website
for several examples of his work spanning his entire career.
Another key founder is Robert Capa, who never really existed. That is to say, Robert Capa, the
“famous American war photographer,” was the constructed identity of two photographers: Gerda
Taro and Andre Friedman. Taro was killed in Spain in 1938 while photographing armed
conflict, so many historians overlook her contribution and use Capa’s name interchangeably with
Friedman’s.
Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, Spain, 1936
The image above was taken during the Spanish Civil War, supposedly capturing the very instant
this soldier was dropped by a bullet through the head while his shadow still appears to be
standing. This photograph brought Capa instant worldwide fame, although doubts have since
been raised about its authenticity. From the outset, Capa loved to be at the heart of the action.
His motto was, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Robert Capa, Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944
This motto was never more apt than in his pictures of the Normandy landings in World War II.
Capa captured a total of four rolls of 35mm film that were rushed to the publisher. In their haste,
a darkroom attendant exposed the negatives to too much heat, so three of the four rolls were
completely destroyed, and only 11 images were salvageable. Dubbed “The Magnificent Eleven,”
these close-ups of US troops wading onto Omaha Beach are probably his finest achievement.
Friedman’s other significant contribution to the field of photography was his part in founding
Magnum in 1947. He was soon keen for action, however, which led to his untimely death in
1954. He was covering the war in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) for Life magazine
when he stepped on a landmine.
Let’s take a look at a few specific projects by Magnum photographers.
Leonard Freed, American Soldiers Stand Guard as the Berlin Wall is Put Up, 1961
While in Berlin working on another assignment, Leonard Freed photographed the newlyconstructed Berlin Wall, with an unnamed African-American soldier standing guard. Freed was
haunted by the idea of a man standing in defense of a country in which his own rights were in
question. This inspired him to begin photographing the Civil Rights movement in 1963,
culminating in the 1968 publication of Black in White America.
Leonard Freed, from Black in White America, published 1968
This publication is a visual diary with a moralizing purpose, presenting the diverse, everyday
lives of a community that has been marginalized for so long. Freed wanted to emphasize the
common humanity of a people perservering in unjust circumstances. He sought not to stimulate
outrage, but to foster understanding and bridge cultural divides. As art historian Paul Farber has
commented, “Freed was an American Jewish photographer who, to paraphrase him, knew society
was ill with racism and he would be sick too if he was not proactive about healing.”
—> View numerous examples of work from this publication on Magnum’s website (Links to an
external site.)Links to an external site..
Another Magnum photographer is Philip Jones Griffiths, whose 1971 publication Vietnam, Inc.,
is one of the most detailed photographic stories of a war ever presented by a single
photographer. Beginning in 1966, Griffiths spent five years documenting the conflict in
Vietnam, seeking to explore the WHY, and not just the WHAT, b …
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