Photography and the Great Depression


Photography and the Great Depression

by guest blogger Jeff McCoy


Can your camera make a difference on social issues; become the voice of those oppressed? During the depression, Roy Stryker answered this.


In the 1930’s America was going through its greatest economic hardship, later referred to as the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt came to Washington with the promise of a “New Deal”. With over twenty percent of the workforce unemployed, the people were eager for any positive change.


The Resettlement Act (RA) was established and FDR brought his trusted advisor, Rexford Tugwell, in to head it up. Columbia University professor, Roy Stryker, followed soon afterward; heading up the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) Historical Division.

Stryker realized the power of a camera and decided to take a group of photographers and send them out across the nation. This was in a time before convenient instant communication. Stryker wanted to show the plight of the farmer, the poor and the displaced through photography.

The Roosevelt administration loved the idea because it showed why the “New Deal” was needed and then showed that it was working. The President had to get the support of the people; Capitol Hill opposed his programs and viewed his “New Deal” as socialistic. Many were upset that some of the money was going to support artists. Today many of those works still stand as a monument to “New Deal” programs.

As the great FSA photographers began sending their work back to Washington D.C., Stryker sent them to the press. The people began to see, up close, just how bad some had it as they witnessed the shacks, dust storms, dying crops and the camps where many people fled to avoid starving to death. Portraits like “Son of a Woodcutter,” by Carl Mydans, conveyed information without words. It shows small but noticeable details like how the suspenders are tattered and buttoned, the building in the background, the stare of the child, and how his hands are shoved into his pockets; a defiance, saying, “I can make it here.”

The photographers were instrumental in documenting the lives of the forgotten. The famous ‘Migrate Mother’ portrait, taken by Dorothea Lange, was the reason for getting food supplies to a camp in California where many were near death.

Today most of us can recall the names of Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and we have all seen at least a few of their photographs, but there were others. Gordon Parks produced some fine work and honed his skills under Roy Stryker. Marion Post-Wolcott, Jack Delano, John Vachon, John Collier Jr., Russell Lee and Ben Shahn also produced great portfolios during their time with the FSA Historical Division. Theo Jung and Paul Carter were also employed by the FSA for a brief period delivering heartfelt photographs.


With Stryker’s guidance and determination, the photographers managed to produce over 250,000 images. In later years it was debated if the negatives should be destroyed; many felt that they reflected badly on our nation. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. The surviving photographs are housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

A major influence on my photography and my life has been the work of the FSA photographers. Other photographers have pointed their lenses to war, poverty, homelessness and other sufferings after being inspired in same way. It is impossible to convey the scope of the great work of the FSA Photographers in this brief article. You can see more at the Library of Congress at All of the photographs in this article were taken from the Library of Congress.

About the author –

Jeff McCoy became a pro photographer in 1985. He covered homelessness for over five years across the U.S. You can follow him at –

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