Our view of the 1930s in the United States was profoundly shaped by photography. The image of “Migrant Mother,” captured by Dorothea Lange in 1936 while working with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) provides just one example of New Deal efforts to document everyday life and culture in the United States through photography. Photographers including John Vachon, Gordon Parks, Russel Lee, Marjory Collins, and Jack Delano were put to work by FSA administrator Roy Stryker. Styker’s monumental influence through the FSA’s “Information Division” is credited with launching the modern documentary photography movement in the United States. The bulk of the FSA photos now reside at the Library of Congress and are now available on-line through the Yale University photogrammar project.
Harrowing images of rural poverty account for only a portion of the total number of stills taken through the program, even though “Migrant Mother” is probably the most significant single snapshot resulting from the project and one of the most famous photographs in American cultural history. This might lead one to believe that all of the photographs brought together were of rural life, but many of the photographers employed by the federal government during the New Deal pointed cameras toward the scenes of a changing urban landscape.
Julia Foulkes’ To The City: Urban Photographs of the New Deal reframes the story of New Deal photography to include photographs of urban housing, poverty, race and labor relations. Foulkes revives these photographs not only by reprinting many of them, but by using them as a lens for offering critical interpretation of city life during the Great Depression and New Deal. This small volume will be of interest to students of urban history, art, and photography.
Reviewed by Sam Redman