ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE: The aestheticization and commodification of the Farm Security Administration’s documentary photographs  (May 2013)

Beauty is one of the greatest dangers to documentary.[1]

The photographs produced for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) are recognized as a one of the pinnacle productions of “documentary” photography in the United States. The impetus for the FSA project was to provide visual support for a variety of federal departments in the U.S. government charged with responsibilities outlined in Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation. At a time of exorbitant unemployment rates, distressed agricultural conditions and a rapidly growing population of urban poor, the “New Deal” was designed on three major principles: Relief, Recovery and Reform.[2] As a consequence, federal spending for “New Deal” programs was considerable and allocations needed to be constantly justified to congress and tax payers. The FSA photographs were vital in illustrating the needy and promoting the good that government dollars were fostering during the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Although the FSA was only in operation for seven years (1935 – 1942),[3] many of the photographs made by FSA photographers have circulated public view via exhibitions and book publications with regularity since then. Critics, historians and scholar-photographers began to take issue with what has ostensibly been referred to as the “aestheticization” of documentary photography, taking to task the fact that the photographs were being regularly shown in major art museums, dramatically removed from their original context and purpose; and that the prints were being steadily sold through art galleries—especially since the 1970s—put a fine point on their commodification, which irked several of the most vocal critics.

There were, however, several art-oriented exhibitions of FSA photographs while the FSA was in operation. This paper will examine the known exhibition history of FSA photographs in the late 1930s, when the director of the Historical Section of the FSA, Roy Stryker, would have had control of the images, such that it would have been he who gave permission as to whether or not FSA works could be used for exhibition or reproduction. The purpose will be to determine if the use of the FSA photographs was solely dedicated to mission directives of the division or if the aestheticization and commodification originated concurrent with the growth of the archive.  (Read more)



1.  Quote from Paul Rotha’s book Documentary Photography, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1949), 175.

2.  Dr. Juliana Kreinik, Pratt Institute,  seminar lecture, February 8, 2013.

3.  Roy Emerson Stryker and Nancy Wood, In This Proud Land: America, 1935-1943, as Seen in the FSA Photographs (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 7.