Have you ever heard of the Farm Security Administration (FSA)? I expect not, but this was a New Deal Department of Agriculture agency that made loans to small farmers. It also had an Information Division that employed 22 photographers to go cross country documenting the people and places of what we now call the Great Depression.
In the US, works created on the job by government employees are in the public domain.
And that is why two of the most widely recognized photographs of the twentieth century are designated as “no known restrictions on publication” at the Library of Congress. Note, however, that there are also laws pertaining to publicity and privacy.
I haven’t yet (but I will) researched whether the family of Florence Thompson has objected to any uses of her picture, but I am not doing so for profit, and so I decided to include it here. Photographer Dorothea Lange titled the portrait “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”; it has become known as “Migrant Mother.” [Credit: LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516]
Here’s a curiosity, the type of thing you discover at the Library of Congress. “Migrant Mother” was retouched to remove a thumb on the tent pole in the original. Look at the right corner of this unretouched negative [credit: LC-USZ62-95653]:
Here’s Dorothea Lange on the road in California in 1936. [LC-DIG-fsa-8b27245]
Another FSA photographer, Arthur Rothstein, shot this iconic image in 1936, “Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma.” [LC-DIG-ppmsc-00241 1936]
Walker Evans was also an FSA photographer. In 1941 he and the playwright James Agee published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an impressionistic chronicle of the weeks they spent documenting the lives of three families of Alabama sharecroppers.
Here are two of Evans’s photos, “Church interior, Alabama or Tennessee” [LC-USF342-8285A ] and “Crossroads store, Sprott, Alabama. 1935 or 1936″ [LC-DIG-ppmsc-00243].
Most of the pictures in the FSA collection document desperate poverty. However unpalatable the effects of today’s downturn in the economy, they in no way compare to those of the 1930s. Here are some reminders, starting with Russell Lee’s February 1939 ″Interior of tent of white migrant family near Edinburg, Texas. Bed is on the floor. Tent was made of patched cotton materials of various sorts. The man said he had worked in a cotton mill in Dallas, Texas, and had obtained the materials then” [LC-USF34-032320-D] and “Sick child in bed in trailer home. Sebastian, Texas” [credit: LC-USF34-032325-D].
Jack Delano shot this portrait, “Children of a WPA (Work Projects Administration) worker’s family near Siloam, Greene County, Georgia” in June 1941 [LC-USF34-044507-D]:
FSA photographer Marion Post Wolcott’s photograph “Home of old and sick mine foreman and WPA (Works Progress Administration) worker and their families, Charleston, West Virginia” was taken in 1938 [LC-USF33-030089-M5].
Then there are other images, stunning for entirely different reasons, such as Delano’s 1943 “Model airplanes decorate the ceiling of the train concourses at Union Station [Chicago]” [LC-USW3-T01-015950-D]:
Also from 1943, “Washington, D.C. Field trips for the “flying nun” pre-flight class, including inspection tours of hangars at the Washington National Airport. Here, Sister Aquinas is explaining engine structure to her students” by Ann Rosener [credit: LC-USW3-031400-D].
You can see many more at the Library of Congress. They explain it best:
The photographs in the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection form an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944. This U.S. government photography project was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, who guided the effort in a succession of government agencies: the Resettlement Administration (1935-1937), the Farm Security Administration (1937-1942), and the Office of War Information (1942-1944). The collection also includes photographs acquired from other governmental and non-governmental sources, including the News Bureau at the Offices of Emergency Management (OEM), various branches of the military, and industrial corporations. In total, the black-and-white portion of the collection consists of about 171,000 black-and-white film negatives, encompassing both negatives that were printed for FSA-OWI use and those that were not printed at the time (use the “Display Images with Neighboring Call Numbers” link on the catalog records to see these uncaptioned images). Color transparencies also made by the FSA/OWI are available in a separate section of the catalog: FSA/OWI Color Photographs
The complete collection of FSA/OWI photographs — 171,000 black-and-white images and 1,602 color images — are available on the Library of Congress website at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html.