The FSA & the Leica Manual

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The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a New Deal agency created in 1937 by Roosevelt to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression in the United States. It succeeded the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937). The FSA is famous for its photography program of 1935–44 that portrayed the challenges of rural poverty. Roy Stryker led the program.

Eleven photographers came to work on the project (listed in order in which they were hired): Arthur Rothstein, Theodor Jung, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, John Vachon, and John Collier.

In a fascinating twist, I have a copy of The Leica Manual, a book edited by Willard Morgan and Henry Lester, first published in 1935. The copy I have is the 8th edition, from 1942. It has 558 pages, and covers everything from how to take photographs with a Leica, film developing, and all manner of practical applications. What is perhaps of most interest is a chapter authored by Roy Stryker and Edwin Locke (noted in the book as being with the Farm Relief Administration).

The chapter is headed ‘Education Through the Eye‘, which features photographs by Rothstein, Jung, Lange and Shahn. It references the images as being courtesy of the Resettlement Administration, the early name of the program, contemporaneous with the first editions of the book. It also has photographs taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, then working with Life Magazine, mainly to illustrate points on relevant factory and farm technology. The overall aim is to link photographs together to present a compelling social narrative.

As I read the chapter, I’m struck by how modern it is. Stryker and Locke cover idea selection, effective verbal storytelling, impactful page layouts, audiences, slide presentation technique and documentary film making. All stand scrutiny today as excellent practices in storytelling, and, dare I say, audience persuasion. Whilst the chapter is pitched as ‘school education’, at the end the authors make clear how they see their approaches as appropriate for all audiences that need to understand new things – in this case, the plight of the farmers in the depression, and the support being offered by the US Government – effective social propaganda.

There is also a fascinating description of the layout of the page which introduced Lange’s famous ‘Migrant Mother‘, tracing how the eye moves across a two page spread to deliver maximum audience response to the Mother.

I am reproducing all of the pages of the chapter. Click on each if you would like to study a larger copy.

It is perhaps no wonder that the work of the FSA photographers is both so well known today, and so highly regarded. Stryker and Locke’s approach to documentary narrative and visual persuasion was compelling, showcasing the images and driving home the message they wanted to deliver.


MORGAN, Willard & LESTER, Henry. 1935. Leica Manual. 1942 Edition. New York: American Book – Stratford Press.

Why Is The Photography Of Vivian Maier So Popular?

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Alex Kilbee

Vivian Maier is an exceptionally popular photographer, but is this popularity because she is a good photographer or because of the myth surrounding her? Or maybe it is because ‘the market’ has been managed so well that there is a kind of spiral of complicity?

Alex Kilbee, who runs The Photographic Eye YouTube channel posted an interesting analysis of the situation, some of which won’t be to everyone’s liking.

Amongst the points that he makes are that Maier was the first (and maybe the last) classical era photographer discovered by the digital generation. She has left so many self portraits – and the ‘selfie generation’ unearthed her via Flickr.

From Wikipedia:

‘In 2007, two years before she died, Maier failed to keep up payments on storage space she had rented on Chicago’s North Side. As a result, her negatives, prints, audio recordings, and 8 mm film were auctioned. Three photo collectors bought parts of her work: John Maloof, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow. Maier’s photographs were first published on the internet in July 2008 by Slattery, but the work received little response.

Maloof had bought the largest part of Maier’s work, about 30,000 negatives, because he was working on a book about the history of the Chicago neighbourhood of Portage Park. Maloof later bought more of Maier’s photographs from another buyer at the same auction. Maloof discovered Maier’s name in his boxes but was unable to discover anything about her until a Google search led him to Maier’s death notice in the Chicago Tribune in April 2009. In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier’s photographs on Flickr; they became a viral phenomenon, with thousands of people expressing interest.

In early 2010, Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein acquired a portion of the Maier collection from Prow, one of the original buyers. Since Goldstein’s original purchase, his collection has grown to include 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints, 30 home movies, and numerous slides. In December 2014, Goldstein sold his collection of B&W negatives to Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto. Maloof, who runs the Maloof Collection, now owns around 90% of Maier’s total output, including 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews, and ephemera including cameras and paperwork, which he claims represents roughly 90 percent of her known work’.

Maier was taking photographs for herself, and her work does offer a new view of the city that we already know through the eyes of Frank and Winogrand but with a different take.

What do you think? If nothing else, it makes us think about what constitutes a great photographer, and what prompts us to laud someone.

Personally, whilst I enjoy her work, I think the market is most responsible for her current rather extreme fame, rather than her photography per se.