Farm Security Administration Photographers in Ohio

October is Archives Month!

This year’s theme is Ohio in the Depression. This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting photographs of people and places in Ohio during the 1930s.

Ohio in the Depression: Farm Security Administration Photographers in Ohio

Main Street in Lancaster, Ohio, August 1938 by FSA photographer Ben Shahn.

Main Street in Lancaster, Ohio, 1938 by FSA photographer Ben Shahn.

Photographs can help form or challenge our notions of a place, people, or time. In many ways, Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Florence Owens Thompson and her children defined the image of America during the Great Depression. Lange was one of several photographers that worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), first known as the Resettlement Administration. The agency commissioned a photographic survey of the country led by Roy Emerson Stryker to document rural poverty during the Great Depression from 1935-1943. The project, however, did more than document rural conditions; it also described a diversity of American experiences during those difficult circumstances. The FSA’s aim was to use the photographs to show both the poverty and prosperity of the country in order to justify support for government programs to alleviate economic hardship. Consequently, the captured images illustrate very different experiences during the 1930s. For instance photographs documenting Ohio’s experiences during the Depression are very different from Lange’s photographs of the Dust Bowl migration in California.

FSA photographers Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans, Theodor Jung, John Vachon, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott documented Ohio’s experience during the Great Depression from 1935-1941. Each photographer covered different regions of the state, segments of society and even the different seasons. The three photographs displayed here of Main Street in Lancaster, Ohio (August 1938), the Thaxton family near Mechanicsburg, Ohio (Summer 1938), and farmers waiting for dinner during the wheat harvest in Central, Ohio (August 1938) were all taken by Ben Shahn. The FSA assigned Shahn to document the harvest in Central Ohio. Some of the themes included: abundant farmland, the hard-working farmer, and the quaintness of small town life. (Ohio: A Photographic Portrait 1935-1941, Carolyn Kinder Carr).

Photograph of Virgil Thaxton and family near Mechanicsburg, Ohio, Summer 1938 by Ben Shahn.

Photograph of Virgil Thaxton and family near Mechanicsburg, Ohio, Summer 1938 by Ben Shahn.

Shahn’s photographs demonstrate the diverse experiences in Ohio during the 1930s. The image of a grim farming family and a group of happy farmers cleaning up for dinner during harvest seem at odds with one another. However, as the photograph of bustling Main Street shows us, some rural communities were prosperous at the time. The caption on the Main Street nitrate negative, held by the Library of Congress, notes that “Lancaster is a very prosperous town, the county seat of Fairfield County, which is considered to be one of the richest farmland areas in the Middle West.” Whereas the image of the worn out Thaxton family is more representative of the iconic sentiment of the Depression. The caption for the nitrate negative of the Thaxton family notes that Virgil Thaxton had already rented four farms to date and each year he hoped to make enough for his family. The FSA photographers that documented Ohio didn’t only capture 1930s rural life. For instance, Mydans and Vachon both documented 1930s Cincinnati; Mydans photographed the city slums and Vachon street life and suburban living. An exhibit of FSA photographs held by the Akron Art Institute in the 1980s showed the different 1930s Ohio experiences, along with an almost smiling photograph of Virgil Thaxton (Ohio: A Photographic Portrait 1935-1941).

Farmers coming to dinner  by Ben Shahn.

Farmers coming to dinner during the wheat harvest, August 1938, by Ben Shahn.

Although the Library of Congress holds the FSA photograph collection, other government programs, like the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), collected prints of the photographs. These prints of Shahn’s photographs, for example, were collected by the FWP to potentially use in the Ohio Guide as well as other publications. The FWP was, like the FSA, a program that came out of the economic hardships of the 1930s. Initiated by the Works Progress Administration, the FWP helped provide employment to writers from 1935-1939. One of the aims of the FWP was the completion of the American Guide Series, which was a compilation of guidebooks for each state. Shahn’s prints displayed here along with more than 4,000 others prints collected by the Ohio FWP can be found in the Ohio Federal Writers’ Project State Archives Series at the Ohio History Center (State Archives Series 1039 AV).

Adria Seccareccia, Processing Assistant

Sources:

Akron Art Institute, Exhibition organized by Carolyn Kinder Carr. Ohio: A Photographic Portrait 1935-1941 Farm Security Administration Photographs. Akron, Ohio: Akron Art Institute, 1980.

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/ (Accessed September 24, 2014).

 

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