- Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Documentary Photography by James R. Swensen
by James R. Swensen
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. 256pp. Cloth $34.95
James Swensen’s book Picturing Migrants explores the influence that Depression-era photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers and others had on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In turn, this text documents the influence of Steinbeck’s work on FSA photographers, such as Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein. Particularly in popular magazines such as Life, Look, and Fortune and the 1941 movie version of The Grapes of Wrath, it also considers the efforts of both Steinbeck and the FSA in depicting the plight of the displaced and marginalized “dust bowl refugees” in popular media.
Even for those acquainted with the history of the 1930s and 1940s, Picturing Migrants reveals intriguing new insights into the conditions people confronted during this iconic era. Sometimes I felt as if the book were eavesdropping on American history. Swensen’s depth of research and his ability to re-embody history kept me anticipating what new stories and understandings the next page or chapter would uncover. I had not known, for example, how strongly Steinbeck felt about the injustices he saw in the FSA photographs, or about his field research with Life magazine photographer Horace Bristol, FSA camp manager Tom Collins, and others of like stature. One of Swenson’s telling ear-to-the-door quotes reveals Steinbeck sending Bristol’s photographs to the documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz, of The Plow That Broke the Plains notoriety. Steinbeck writes, “I hope these pictures pin a badge of shame on the greedy sons of bitches who are causing this condition and it’s definitely caused, make no mistake about it” (49).
In October 1936, before he published The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote a series of articles for the San Francisco News titled “The Harvest Gypsies.” Of these articles, Swensen states, “It was the first time Steinbeck’s prose and Dorothea Lange’s images were paired together” (35). Since it is an important topic in communication aesthetic theory and practice, the interplay of image and text gets deserving scrutiny in Swenson’s text. To illustrate, witness Steinbeck’s assertion that “the photograph was a document that could be used, analyzed, and incorporated into a narrative but that could not create a narrative of its own; photographs depicted better than they explained” (51). [End Page 218] Photographer Garry Winogrand certainly agrees with Steinbeck, maintaining that “as a writer, Steinbeck apparently believed that nothing could match the written word” (50). In comparison with Winogrand’s remark, a 1940 Oklahoma Daily article comments on an FSA Grapes of Wrath display at the University of Oklahoma that matched quotations from the novel with FSA photographs. This article opines that Steinbeck’s “shocking rhetoric cannot do the job as effectively as do the photographs now on exhibit” (149).
Roy Stryker, head of the FSA photography team, “was not philosophical when it came to photography. For him it was the content of the images and the use to which they were put that mattered. . . . If anything, Stryker believed that the work of the FSA Historical Section could ground The Grapes of Wrath in a believable reality” (61).
“Believable reality” has a knack for boomerang-like returns. This historic enterprise of writers, visual artists, social activists, and government entities who tried to offer thousands of “dust bowl migrants” help and hope, through whatever means available, has a very contemporary feel. With an uncanny sense of time travel, one of Picturing Migrants’ many enriching “historical” glimpses invites us to consider that although Oklahoma, like so many other states, was segregated in the 1930s, “African Americans were seen as having higher status than Okies” (81). Anyone for “Okie Lives Matter”?
Swensen brings to life many of the seminal individuals, places, and events of the Great Depression. One of the happy surprises for me was getting the opportunity to become better acquainted with the photographer Russell Lee. Three chapters are dominated by a productive look at the collaboration between...