Book Review: New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943, Farm Security Administration, 605pp

Taschen, an international publishing company begun in Cologne in 1980, has achieved international renown for its standout coffee table books. Taschen’s art books span from western masterpieces to pop culture, including illustrated monographs on artists, musicians, and writers, classical and contemporary.

Under its Bibliotheca Universalis imprint, Taschen recently reprised 100 of what it calls its “favorites” in a compact, 6 x 8 inch format. Thankfully, the series includes New Deal Photography, USA 1935-1943, a compendium of more than 400 photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression.

In producing what it calls its “democratically priced” edition, Taschen has not sacrificed the legendary quality for which it is famous.

Author Peter Walther has curated an extensive catalogue of indelible images—a “best of” by the best-known photographers of the era. Many of them got their start with the FSA, one of many New Deal programs to put people to work. In the wake of the short-lived Resettlement Administration, the FSA’s mandate was to combat rural poverty. One powerful weapon was to document it. Roy Stryker, who headed the project, described as its purpose “to introduce America to Americans.”

Photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and others fanned out across the country capturing images of the ruined landscape and those whose lives were upended by the nation’s environmental and economic collapse.

Over the course of eight years the FSA project resulted in the most comprehensive collection of social-documentary photographs of the 20th century.

Walther’s commentary, presented in English, French, and German, succinctly describes the historical context that fostered this uniquely American collection. The book includes rarely seen color photographs as well as many familiar black-and-white images of the displaced and desperate, such as Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” and Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm.” Also included are brief bios and portraits of the photographers themselves whose iconic images have come to be recognized worldwide.

Memories of Photographer Rondal Partridge (1917-2015)

Ron Partridge

Ron Partridge
Bedford Gallery Exhibition, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Ron Partridge was still working in his Berkeley, California, dark room well into his 90s. This brought his life full circle. Ron began his career in the darkroom, assisting his mother, photographer Imogen Cunningham. Ron went on to assist both Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange during the 1930s. Lange’s influence can be seen in Ron’s photographs for the National Youth Administration (NYA), a job that sent him throughout California chronicling the lives of young people on the brink of World War II.

Over the course of his long career as a photographer and filmmaker, Ron’s work embraced landscapes, people, objects, and architecture.

Photo of Dorothea Lange at work, 1936

Dorothea Lange, 1936
Photo of Dorothea Lange at work
Photo Credit: Rondal Partridge

In 2010, I co-curated an exhibit of New Deal art at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California. I made a point of inviting the few living New Deal artists that I knew of. It was a short list: Photographer Rondal Partridge, sculptor Milton Hebald, and WPA and Disney artist Tyrus Wong, (now 104 years old!)

Ron and I drove to the opening reception in my classic Plymouth Valiant. He clearly appreciated the attention that he and his work received that night. I continued to visit Ron after that exhibition. He was always excited about his latest project. In recent years he focused on framing dried plants—preserving the unique quality of each specimen. They were studies in form, some in partial states of decay. He relished the second-hand frames he collected for this work.

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith
New Deal art exhibition, Bedford Gallery, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Anyone who knew Ron knew that he had strong views, a sense of irreverence, and a wonderful sense of humor. Like others I’ve met who worked for the New Deal, Ron was infused with the spirit of that time—a social conscience, ingenuity, and a drive to create—seemingly indifferent to fame and fortune. Ron passed away on June 19. He and his New Deal generation will be missed.