Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers

Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers

Mon, 08/30/2010 - 7:00pm

Migratory Mexican field workers, photographed by Dorothea Lange.

Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

This film brings to life the remarkable stories behind the legendary group of New Deal-sponsored photographers who captured the face of Depression-era America.

“Roy Stryker proved to me that you cannot photograph a bigot and say ‘this is a bigot’ because they have a way of looking just like everybody else. What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry by showing the people who suffered most under it.” – Gordon Parks

It was the first time Americans saw each other’s faces and witnessed what life was like across the nation: north to south, east to west, rich and poor, black and white. Ordinary people. Extraordinary times.

Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers encoring Monday, August 30 at 7 p.m. on PBS World (cable 524/DT21.2), explores the personal vision and the struggles experienced by photographers Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott and Jack Delano who created some of the most iconic images in history. Still recognized today, Dorothea Lange’s haunting photograph of the “Migrant Mother” remains one of the most famous images of all time.

This unlikely group of photographers and artists was brought together by a fiery prairie populist and government bureaucrat named Roy Stryker. His vision of sending some of America’s most talented photographers out into the countryside in a government-sponsored project drew ire from the conservatives in Congress and praise from the general public. What they captured, for the first time, was a complete picture of their countrymen in the context of a national identity. As Stryker would later comment, “Our photographers had one thing in common, and that was a deep respect for human beings.”

But the photographs were controversial and the agency under constant attack. At one point, the collection was under threat of destruction by the conservative congressional opponents of the time, who considered the photographs — which portrayed the heartbreak of the Dust Bowl era all the way through the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans at the outset of WWII — propaganda. Today, this vast collection of more than 160,000 photographs, many never before seen by the public, remains hauntingly relevant.

From 1935 to 1943, these artists changed not only the course of photography, but the way Americans related to the plight of their countrymen. Published in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast, their powerful images helped transform popular opinion in a way that words and speeches never could. 

Highlighting the forgotten pieces of America’s collective history, Documenting the Face of America features on-camera interviews with FSA photographers Gordon Parks, Rondal Partridge and Louise Rosskam; acclaimed historians and scholars, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Kennedy and F. Jack Hurley; oral histories; archival footage; and detailed excerpts from the diaries and shooting scripts kept by Stryker and the photographers.

“If you could get all the work that Stryker was responsible for, you would see the face of America in the 1930s and ’40s that nobody has ever seen together,” said the late Gordon Parks.

Documenting the Face of America is an opportunity to revisit an important time in the nation’s collective history in a deeply personal way and to inspire a new generation of documentary photographers to build on the traditions and passions of their predecessors, to continue to confront questions of truth with the camera.

Featured in the program are:

  • Gordon Parks (1912-2006): Photographer, musician, poet, novelist, journalist, activist and film director.
  • David Kennedy: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Stanford University.
  • Jack Hurle: Historian and author of Portrait of a Decade, Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers.
  • William Christenberry: Photographer, painter and sculptor.
  • Louise Rosskam: FSA/OWI photographer.
  • Beverly Brannon: Curator, Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
  • Sally Stein: Art historian, University of California, Irvine.
  • Bernarda Shahn: Artist and widow of artist and FSA photographer Ben Shahn.
  • Rondal Partridge: Photographer.
  • Roy Emerson Stryker: Director of the historical unit for the FSA/OWI (through excerpts from his letters and interview transcripts). Born in Colorado in 1893, Stryker fought in Europe during WWI and returned to attend Columbia University, where he became an assistant professor of economics. Known for his lively lectures and the use of photographs to illustrate abstract economic ideas, Stryker was called to Washington, DC, in 1932 to head the Information Division of the Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration), a New Deal program designed as a relocation program for poor farmers. During this time, Stryker launched one of the largest government-funded documentary photography projects in U.S. history. After leaving the government in 1942, Stryker went on to amass another incredible collection of photographs for the Standard Oil Corporation. His personal collection of papers and photographs is held by the University of Louisville, Special Collections Unit.
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