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.

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

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