Cultural historians have neglected the urban photographs of thirties and forties America in favor of rural depictions, especially the many thousands produced by the gifted staff of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In To the City: Urban Photographs of the New Deal Julia A. Foulkes proposes to redress that imbalance by examining the smaller but not insignificant quantity of urban images made by the FSA photographers, 101 of which the book reproduces. That worthwhile objective, however, is defeated by a weak, sometimes misleading historical context; inadequate glosses on a number of the reproductions, often little more than paraphrases of content; and the author’s insufficient research, which weakens the authority of her analysis of the FSA and its photographs.
The book’s subtitle, Urban Photographs of the New Deal, is misleading inasmuch as the FSA’s was not the only federally sponsored photography in the New Deal. Numerous agencies employed photographers, some urban-oriented, the most important of whom was Berenice Abbott, whose “Changing New York” project was underwritten by the Federal Arts Project. She and her project go unmentioned in To the City.
Foulkes remarks that the FSA photographers “largely stay[ed] away from the potent issues of the day, including race relations” (7). Sadly, race relations were not a pressing concern for the New Deal but had Foulkes consulted Nicholas Natanson’s The Black Image in the New Deal she would have discovered that African Americans were featured in the FSA’s photographs slightly more often than their percentage comprised in the U.S. population. Other important FSA scholarship, such as Colleen McDannell’s on the FSA and religion with an important chapter on “City Congregations,” is also absent in her endnotes.
Breezy generalizations intended to illustrate the uniqueness of thirties culture do not pass historical muster. The centrality of automobiles, readers are informed, is “a characteristic new to cities during this era” (33). Movies, too, “emerged as a new visual mode of urban life in the 1930s” (5), and “as early as the end of the 1930s, suburbs became the new vision of a better life” (8). All these developments antedated [End Page 177] the thirties by decades and had become ubiquitous by the twenties. The book’s most egregious historical blunder misreads the meaning of a reproduced photograph (not by the FSA although in its file), of people in Oregon signing a petition which Foulkes construes as “decry[ing] the forced relocation of migrants into labor camps” (100). No such forced relocation occurred in the thirties and what the anti-New Deal petitioners aimed to stop was the establishment of federal migrant camps like the one fictionalized in The Grapes of Wrath.
As a collection of photographs To the City comprises a useful complement to the many anthologies emphasizing the FSA’s rural pictures. The photographs’ distinction makes it all the more unfortunate that the book’s brief text is so unilluminating.