- Photogrammar:A New Look at New Deal Photography
The new digital archive Photogrammar enables easy access to the collection of 170,000 photographs created by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI), which is housed by the Library of Congress. Designed by a Yale University team led by Laura Wexler, professor of American studies and coordinator of the Public Humanities Program, and Laura Tilton, a doctoral candidate in American studies, Photogrammar uses interactive maps and data visualizations to encourage a broader understanding of New Deal photography and engage new viewers with the collection.
In 1935 the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency established to combat rural poverty, initiated a ground-breaking project to document the impact of economic catastrophe, especially for American farmers, and to chronicle the results of the FSA’s social reform programs. Under the direction of Roy Stryker, chief of the Historical Section, a team of photographers including Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, and John Vachon were dispatched throughout the nation. Building on the tradition of reform-oriented documentary photography pioneered by Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, they chronicled prosaic aspects of American life, giving voice to the destitute and producing iconic images that have shaped our understanding of the period. In 1942, when the United States entered World War II, the photographic project was moved to the Office of War Information, thousands of images were sent overseas, and the archive was cataloged using a system designed by Paul Vanderbilt. Photogrammar expands our understanding of the FSA collection beyond the frequently published famous images, such as Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), Evans’s Kitchen of Floyd Burroughs’ Cabin, Hale County, Alabama (1935–36), and Lee’s Kitchen, Hidalgo County Texas (1939), which have become cultural symbols. [End Page 439]
At present, the easiest way to navigate the site is through its maps feature, which charts locations for ninety thousand photographs that have geographic information. One map view allows for browsing by state and county, and the other charts the movement of photographers across the United States. The result is a more contextual presentation of the photographic collection than the one offered by the Library of Congress digital archive. The ability to sort for and view a series of images by location is a powerful feature. It approximates, for a larger audience, the experience of the archive, where viewers can explore by subject folders, and comparisons and discoveries can be made.
Searching for the famous images by Lange, Evans, and Lee using the county map yields thumbnails of all the related photographs on one page. It was the practice of FSA photographers to take multiple shots, which would later be edited by Stryker, who over the course of the program rejected one hundred thousand negatives. Selecting San Luis Obispo, California, produces Lange’s Nipomo series documenting the plight of destitute pea pickers who transformed their cars into lean-to shelters while they worked the fields that had not been degraded by erosion. Lange’s renowned Migrant Mother appears alongside her four other photographs of the migrant worker Nettie Ferguson taken in March 1936. Seeing Migrant Mother in context is a reminder of the frequently discussed choices Lange made to create the composition, including the close cropping and her decision to photograph the children while they were turned away from the camera. Viewing Evans’s Kitchen of Floyd Burroughs’ Cabin and Lee’s Kitchen by location deepens our understanding of these images as well. Evans’s detailed study of a worn but tidy kitchen corner in Floyd Burroughs’s home reveals Evans’s broader approach of documenting the stories of several families including the Burroughs, the Fields, and the Tengles. Lee’s iconic depiction of a modernist kitchen, although one of numerous images of new housing facilitated by the FSA, is actually somewhat atypical of his Hidalgo photographs, which focused on migrant laborers and vegetable and fruit-packing plants.
The second map view traces the path of...