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Documenting the Depression
New Book Chronicles U.S. Photographers' New Deal Odyssey

Listen Listen as Lisa Simeone talks to the photo editors of Children of the Depression.

Dorothea Lange -- Migrant Mother, 1936.

"Destitute peapickers in California; a 32-year-old mother of seven children. February 1936." Also known as "Migrant Mother."
Photo: Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress

Feb. 23, 2002 -- At the height of the Great Depression in 1935, an inventive government economist named Roy Stryker decided the best way to tell the story about the nation's economic woes to the American people was through pictures, not numbers or charts.

As head of the Farm Security Administration's Historical Section, Stryker hired some of the best American photographers and sent them traveling, with a mission: to record the daily struggles and small victories of ordinary farm workers during a time of extraordinary hardship.

Those photographers -- some already well-known and respected in their own field -- would go on to become famous for the stories their poignant photos told: Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Ben Shahn and a dozen more.


Roy Stryker
Photo courtesy Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Stryker charged them with documenting day-to-day existence in rural America, with a special emphasis on the Dust Bowl and how the mechanization of farming affected the lives of men, women and children who worked the soil.

In a documentary film about the project, Lange says the photographers were given a great deal of freedom and few specific instructions. "In the early days of the New Deal... no one was ever given exact directions 'go here and do so-and-so.' You were turned loose in a region, and the assignment was more like this: See what you can bring home, see what is really there, what does it look like, what does it feel like, what actually is the human condition."

With war looming in Europe and the Pacific, Stryker's photographers also began to document the lives of workers as the nation mobilized for World War II. In the end, the collection housed at the Library of Congress included 164,000 black-and-white negatives.

Ben Shahn, Cotton pickers, 6:30 AM, Alexander plantation, Pulaski County, Arkansas

"Cotton pickers, 6:30 AM, Alexander plantation, Pulaski County, Arkansas." 1935.
Photo: Ben Shahn/Library of Congress

Beginning in 1939, it also created 644 color documentary still photographs. The Historical Section's documentary project continued for one year after the unit moved to the Office of War Information in 1942.

Some of the best of the pictures focusing on rural life and farm workers have been compiled in a new book, Children of the Depression, by photo editors Kathleen Thompson and Hilary MacAustin. And the Library of Congress has made an unprecedented number of these famous images available on the Internet.

Browse more NPR stories on the Great Depression.

Other Resources

• See more photos and learn about the photographers of the FSA/OWI Web site, part of the Library of Congress American Memory project.

• Dorothea Lange's experience during the Great Depression was the subject of a documentary film by Meg Partridge.

• A chronology of the Depression-era work of Walker Evans.

• Details of the collected works and papers of Roy Stryker.

• A profile of Roy Stryker by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.