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Farm Security Administration and New York Photo League Essay

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Updated: Aug 16th, 2020

The Photo League and the FSA

The Photo League was initiated as a radical Film and Photo league whereby its main artistic focus was of an aesthetic character and without much relevance to politics. The Film and Photo league collapsed due to a conflict concerning the integration of political influence into their art also due to the fact that it failed to cover the violent west coast strikes of 1934. The disagreement regarding the focus of the Film and Photo league served as the basis for the emergence of The Photo League in 1936 (Raeburn 52).

The Photo League was founded by Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman, and its main purpose was to uncovering people’s relationships and interactions, depict various institutions, buildings, and social activities and emphasize the social and political struggles. The works of the Photo League artists did not require any verbal explanation for the viewers to understand the story behind them. It is important to indicate that many individuals of that period suffered from high levels of unemployment and poverty during the depression era. The gap between the rich and the poor increased. This way, the photographers served as trustworthy educators and attention raisers, revealing the hidden and unknown sides of the social and political reality.

The Photo League expanded rapidly to become an institution for teaching photography. The students there were taught basics in photography, but mainly they were encouraged to go to the streets with their cameras and take real-time photographs (Hulu).

Later, many renowned successful photographers joined the League; among them was Eliot Elisofon, the photographer with a common perception of the camera as a visual expression unit. As a result, classic photography was achieved, which portrayed the state in which citizens were living in and how laborers were exploited. Child labour is also portrayed and how residents lived in congested neighbour hoods (Raeburn 92). Although the main picture was the dire living conditions that citizens suffered from the depression era, evidence of industrialization and diversity are also present. The league also acted as a social centre hosting dances, and fund-raising parties (Hulu).

Young members were eager to learn skills and interact with famous photographers. The well-known photographers were full of experience and desired to share their skills and knowledge with the younger generation. The Photo League membership drained in 1952 after it was listed by the US Attorney-General as a subversive organisation. Photos of the Photo League include “Elks Parade” (1939) where a building is overcrowded. Other examples are “Butterfly Boy” (1949), ”Girl in a Mirror” by Sonia Handleman Meyer, “St. Mark’s Church”, “Skywriting Spiral” by Berenice Abbott.

At the same time, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers focused on agriculture and the hardships that workers underwent in the farms during the depression era. The main goal of the FSA was to demonstrate the conditions and difficulties simple farm workers were going through at that time (Raeburn 11). The FSA aimed at bringing a picture of how life was in the farm. Stryker hired the likes of Dorothea Lange, John Vachon, Carl Mydans and Gordon Parks.

Unlike in the Photo League where members targeted the city life and covered the specificity of life in Harlem, Stryker sent his crew to the fields and farm, and as the photos came in, he worked to get them published (Hulu). The Photo League displayed photos from FSA in their galleries. Many newspapers all around the USA were using photos from the FSA to display conditions and the life the individuals were going through during the era.

The only main difference is that the Photo League aimed at documenting the urban life while the FSA aimed at documenting rural lifestyle. It is essential to point out that the FSA was in the forefront in showing the importance or usefulness of agriculture towards the development and expansion of the American economy. Examples of photos from the FSA include the photos by Dorothea Lange such as “Woman of the High Plains “If you Die, You’re Dead that’s All”. This picture is a good evidence of the devastating situations that people in the fields faced. Other works include “Fleeing a Dust Storm”, “Cimarron County”, “OK” by Arthur Rothstein.

The Photo League and the Harlem Document

It is important to point out that the Harlem Document was created by Aaron Siskind in order to depict the life in Harlem during the great depression era. Harlem is situated in New York City and is a large neighbourhood in the Upper Manhattan (Hulu). In the era of the Great Depression Harlem was inhabited mainly by the African American community. At that time Harlem was more of an urban slum.

The main intention of the Harlem Document was to create a clear picture of how residents faced hardships. For example, living conditions were so poor that sometimes as many as four families had to use one washroom. Public utilities such as playgrounds for children were unavailable; as a result, children used the public roads as play areas. In this document Harlem is portrayed as a miserable place which was overcrowded and lacked basic human utilities. The Harlem Document which was composed of the photographs by Aaron Siskind also seems to reflect the aspect of controversy (Raeburn 72).

According to a photographic historian Maurice Berger, there is a great sense of controversy regarding the Harlem Document. Maurice Berger argues that the Harlem Document reinforced racial stereotypes emphasizing Harlem’s crime and poverty. Berger notes that the diversity of social community would have been a better focus for the white photographers. At the same time, the photographs taken in Harlem do not only reflect poverty and crime, they vividly portray a lot of hope and transcendence (Hulu).

Even though there was a great effect of poverty people still worked hard and there is also a great evidence of hope for better. For example, in the untitled photo by Aaron Siskind, the Gift of Dr.Robert L. and Chitranee Drapkin one can actually see hope in the people’s faces. In the Looks (a renowned and influential magazine of that time) photographs of Harlem’s children playing, voluntary associations, leisure activities are very well displayed. Yet, those of Harlem businesses and militancy are absent.

This is one of the evidences of the controversy surrounding the Harlem Document. Besides, Siskind also included photos of buildings and architecture into his Harlem Document showing the influence of industrialization which coupled with civilization (Hulu). Moreover, among the individuals portrayed in Harlem Document there are many decent and hardworking people, so not only poverty and crime are emphasized. On the opposite, adding images of various groups of people living in Harlem Siskind demonstrated its diversity and its multiple dimensions.

Works Cited

Hulu. Ordinary Miracles The Photo Leagues New York _ Ordinary Miracles The Photo Leagues New York. 2014. Web.

Raeburn, John. Staggering Revolution. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Print.

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