History Podcasts

How Photography Defined the Great Depression

How Photography Defined the Great Depression

During the 1930s, America went through one of its greatest challenges: the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to relieve the dire economic situation with his New Deal programs. To justify the need for those projects, the government employed photographers to document the suffering of those affected and publish the pictures. Their efforts produced some of the most iconic photographs of the Great Depression—and all of American history.

Photos showed ‘the city people what it’s like to live on the farm.’

The Resettlement Administration, later replaced by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), was created as part of the New Deal to build relief camps and offer loans and relocation assistance to farmers impacted by the Depression and the Dust Bowl, which wreaked havoc on the Great Plains. But the programs weren’t cheap and required significant government funding to maintain.

Former Roosevelt advisor Rexford Tugwell headed up the department and soon hired Columbia University professor Roy Stryker as Chief of the Historical Section in the Division of Information. Stryker also led the agency’s Photographic Unit.

Stryker was tasked with documenting the need for government assistance by taking photographs of rural farmers at work and at home in their small-town communities, of migrants looking for work and of the effects of the Great Depression on everyday life in rural America. “Show the city people what it’s like to live on the farm,” Tugwell reportedly told Stryker.

The FSA photographs galvanized Americans into action.

Stryker created a team of “documentary photographers.” They didn’t want to just churn out propaganda photos of bread lines, vacant farmhouses and barefoot children caked with dust. They also wanted to capture the raw emotion behind the drudgery and bring empathy to the suffering of ordinary Americans.

The first photographer Stryker chose for his team was Arthur Rothstein. During his five years with the FSA, his most noteworthy contribution may have been, “Fleeing a Dust Storm,” a (supposedly posed) photo of an Oklahoma homesteader and his two young sons trudging through swirling layers of dust towards a dilapidated shack.

New Jersey-born portrait photographer Dorothea Lange also worked for the FSA. She took many photographs of poverty-stricken families in squatter camps, but was best known for a series of photographs of Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother living in a camp of stranded pea pickers.

One photograph of Thompson, “Migrant Mother,” became a defining symbol of the Great Depression. The pictures’ publication incited an emergency food delivery to the pea picker’s camp, although Thompson and her family had reportedly moved on before help arrived.

Photographer Walker Evans also joined the FSA team. He’s well-known for his photo of Allie Mae Burroughs, a sharecropper’s wife and mother of four. He’s also known for photographing images of shop windows, architecture and items which portrayed the resourcefulness of Depression-era Americans.

Some other FSA photographers included:

Russell Lee: known for capturing moments of hope and joy among poor migrants.

Gordon Parks: a black photographer who experienced rampant bigotry in Washington, D.C., but nonetheless stayed with the FSA and became known for his haunting photos of government worker Ella Watson.

Carl Mydans: known for his pictures of disheveled farmers and their families living in makeshift shelters.

Jack Delano: an Eastern European immigrant who photographed migrant workers and famers along the eastern seaboard and later, Puerto Rico.

Depression-era photo subjects showed as much strength as suffering.

Although the government used FSA photographs to prove its New Deal programs helped impoverished Americans, FSA photographers also sought to portray their subjects as strong, courageous people determined to survive tough times.

The people they photographed were often resilient, prideful and fiercely independent. Ironically, many refused to accept the very government assistance they’d inadvertently become the faces for.

Instead, they used ingenuity and whatever resources they had to remain self-supporting, and considered government welfare a last resort. Some people were reportedly angry and embarrassed when they realized their photographs had been published.

The FSA photo archives left an unprecedented historical legacy.

The FSA created a historical archive unlike any made before. By the time the project was finished, FSA photographers had taken some 250,000 photographs. Since the photographers were funded by the government, all photos were and remain in the public domain—neither the photographers nor their subjects received royalties.

FSA photos appeared in popular magazines such as Fortune, Look and Life, making it almost impossible for any American to deny the devastating impact of the Great Depression.

Without the committed work of the FSA, the wealthy—some of whom actually got wealthier during the Depression—and people in the eastern United States might have remained oblivious to the full reach and suffering of rural Americans.

What began as a political ploy ended as a lasting legacy of a turbulent era in U.S. history.












The History of Photojournalism. How Photography Changed the Way We Receive News.

Using images to communicate the news, photojournalism has shaped the way we view the world since the mid-19th century. What began as war photography has slowly spread to other newsworthy events, including sports, and even long-form storytelling through photo essays.

While some say its heyday has long passed with the closure of photo-magazines like LIFE, photojournalists are adapting, using new technology and outlets to continue telling the important stories of contemporary society. We take a look at the origins of photojournalism and its journey through history, from historic firsts to controversies and iconic photographers.


Migrant Mother (1936)

George Eastman House Collection/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This famous photograph is searing in its depiction of the utter desperation the Great Depression brought to so many and has become a symbol of the Depression. This woman was one of many migrant workers picking peas in California in the 1930s to make just enough money to survive.

It was taken by photographer Dorothea Lange as she traveled with her new husband, Paul Taylor, to document the hardships of the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration.

Lange spent five years (1935 to 1940) documenting the lives and hardships of the migrant workers, ultimately receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship for her efforts.

Less known is that Lange later went on to photograph the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.


How Photography Defined The Great Depression

During the 1930s, America went through one of its greatest challenges: the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to relieve the dire economic situation with his New Deal programs. To justify the need for those projects, the government employed photographers to document the suffering of those affected and publish the pictures. Their efforts produced some of the most iconic photographs of the Great Depression – and all of American history.

Photos showed ‘the city people what it’s like to live on the farm.’

The Resettlement Administration, later replaced by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), was created as part of the New Deal to build relief camps and offer loans and relocation assistance to farmers impacted by the Depression and the Dust Bowl, which wreaked havoc on the Great Plains. But the programs weren’t cheap and required significant government funding to maintain.

Roy Stryker was hired as the agency’s Photographic Unit. Stryker was tasked with documenting the need for government assistance by taking photographs of rural farmers at work and at home in their small-town communities, of migrants looking for work and of the effects of the Great Depression on everyday life in rural America. “Show the city people what it’s like to live on the farm,” Tugwell reportedly told Stryker.

‘Fleeing a Dust Storm,’ photographed by Arthur Rothstein. (Credit: Farm Security Administration/The Library of Congress)

The FSA photographs galvanized Americans into action.

Stryker created a team of “documentary photographers.” They didn’t want to just churn out propaganda photos of bread lines, vacant farmhouses and barefoot children caked with dust. They also wanted to capture the raw emotion behind the drudgery and bring empathy to the suffering of ordinary Americans.

The first photographer Stryker chose for his team was Arthur Rothstein. During his five years with the FSA, his most noteworthy contribution may have been, “Fleeing a Dust Storm,” a (supposedly posed) photo of an Oklahoma homesteader and his two young sons trudging through swirling layers of dust towards a dilapidated shack.

‘Migrant Mother,’ photographed by Dorothea Lange. (Credit: Farm Security Administration/The Library of Congress)

Depression-era photo subjects showed as much strength as suffering.

Although the government used FSA photographs to prove its New Deal programs helped impoverished Americans, FSA photographers also sought to portray their subjects as strong, courageous people determined to survive tough times.

The people they photographed were often resilient, prideful and fiercely independent. Ironically, many refused to accept the very government assistance they’d inadvertently become the faces for.

Instead, they used ingenuity and whatever resources they had to remain self-supporting, and considered government welfare a last resort. Some people were reportedly angry and embarrassed when they realized their photographs had been published.


Walker Evans 

Waterfront in New Orleans, Louisiana. French market sidewalk scene circa 1935. (Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

Part of a wealthy family, Evans worked as an advertising photographer and a documentary photographer before joining the FSA.  “Possessing an inherent grace and structure, his photographs of shop fronts, barbershops, and rural homes are rich in details of daily life and, at times, of desperate need,” writes the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Evans photographed in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.


Leaving a Lasting Legacy

Lange’s most iconic photograph is that of the Migrant Mother that she captured in 1936. This photo, along with others that she captured during the time, brought the plight of displaced farmers and sharecroppers to the attention of the public. The photos she captured of displaced farmers during the Depression-era also inspired a generation of documentary photographers that came after Lange.

While Lange’s legacy focuses heavily on her Depression-era photography. She made great contributions to society through her photography following the era as well. World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. The war would rage for six years, finally coming to an end on September 2, 1945. While most of the battles were fought on European soil, there were struggles on the American home front as well.

The Japanese Empire bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Following this attack, the U.S. government under FDR forcefully relocated over 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans into internment camps between 1942 and 1946. Lange and Taylor were among a small handful of prominent whites to protest the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during these years.

Lange traveled to many internment facilities, documenting the facilities and the experience the Japanese Americans faced through her photography. She was actually hired by the Office of War Information to photograph the internment of Japanese Americans. However, at the time, authorities deemed Lange’s photographs too sensitive for the public and many were impounded. Most of the images were not allowed to be viewed by the public until long after the war was over. Luckily, many of the photos Lange captured of the Japanese internment camps can be viewed today at the National Archives.

While Lange made the decision that teaching wasn’t for her back in her early twenties, in the mid-1940s, at the age of 50, she found herself in the classroom once again. In 1945, Lange was invited to teach photography at the California School of Fine Arts by Ansel Adams. In 1952, Lange went on to co-found the photography magazine Aperture with a number of talented photographers. Teaching photography and co-founding a magazine were the last two significant achievements of Lange’s extraordinary life. At the time, Lange was in her 50s, and her health had already begun to seriously decline.

After contributing amazing works to society for several decades, Lange passed away on October 11, 1965, at the age of seventy. Ultimately, her death was caused by esophageal cancer. However, she experienced recurring pains and weakness in her later years as a direct result of the poliovirus she had contracted in her youth. Despite the pain she endured, Dorothea Lange led an extraordinary life and left a lasting legacy. Many of the photos she captured throughout her life live on in history books of today.

“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.” — Dorothea Lange


What were the causes of the Great Depression?

The Great Depression had worldwide reach. But it is especially remembered in the United States as one of the defining periods of the 1900s. It is considered the worst economic disaster in the history of the U.S., affecting every aspect of the economy and leading to severe conditions for much of the population.

During the “Roaring Twenties,” wealth in the U.S. grew, and people started to bet big money on the stock market. However, in 1929, people were not spending as much money, and production of goods started to slow down. Meanwhile, stock prices continued to rise. On October 24, 1929, investors started selling off their shares of overpriced stocks, causing stock prices to fall to very low levels—otherwise known as a stock market crash. This started a cycle: people started to spend even less money, business revenues fell, and companies laid off workers. Thousands of banks went out of business, unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25 percent, housing prices dropped sharply, and U.S. trade with other nations saw extreme declines.

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to implement his “New Deal” plan for economic recovery. This included the creation of federal agencies responsible for regulating banks and aspects of the financial system, as well as programs to aid citizens directly, like the Social Security system and public works programs that helped people gain employment.

Economists debate whether these programs were directly responsible for the recovery, but by the late 1930s, the economy—along with living conditions for many people—began to improve. The entry of the U.S. into World War II in 1941 is often cited as the end of the depression.

The Great Depression is often used as a key period in U.S. history, and its causes and effects are still frequently discussed. Scholars propose various causes, often citing factors relating to banks, debt, inflation, drought conditions in the U.S., and tariffs (fees that make it more expensive to import goods). Its effects are complex and far-reaching. For many people, it meant a decade of poverty, moving around to find work, and bare-bones survival. In the U.S., it led to many, many agencies and programs that transformed the government and that still exist today.


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Walker Evans’ Reflections on His Great Depression Photos

The great American photographer Walker Evans is best known for his stark photos that document the years of the Great Depression in the US. In the 4.5-minute video above, produced many years afterwards, Evans looks back on his photography and offers a glimpse into his mindset at the time he shot it.

Although many of his works are in the permanent collections of major museums now and praised as being some of the most powerful images made in American history, Evans had a much smaller and less ambitious view of what he was doing at the time.

“I was very innocent about government, about Washington,” he says in the video. “I did it so carelessly — I just photographed everything that attracted me at the time… and rather unconsciously was recording that period. I didn’t think of it as such. The work piled up, and some of it is looked at now as a record that I wasn’t even thinking of making.”

Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. 1935. Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.

Resettlement homestead near Eatonton, Georgia. Briar Patch Project. March 1936.

Evans says he was also focused on objectivity and simply documenting what he was seeing without giving any thought to social issues.

“The work produced at the Depression looks like social protest. It wasn’t intended to be. It wasn’t intended to be used as propaganda for any cause,” he states. “I suppose I was interested in calling attention to something, and even shocking people. But I don’t think I had the purpose of improving the world. I like saying what’s what.”

Mrs. Frank Tengle and Laura Minnie Lee Tengle, sharecroppers, near Moundville, Hale County, Alabama. 1936. Kitchen in house of Floyd Burroughs, sharecropper, near Moundville, Hale County, Alabama. 1936. Tengle children, Hale County, Alabama. 1936. Floyd Burroughs and Tengle children, Hale County, Alabama. 1936.

And many of Evans’ best photos may have been the result of luck as much as they were skill, the photographer says.

“I do regard photography as an extremely difficult act. I believe the achievement of a work that is evocative and mysterious and at the same time realistic is a great one, and a rare one, and perhaps sometimes almost an accident.”

“It’s akin to hunting, photography is. In the same way that you’re using a machine, and you’re actually shooting something, and you’re shooting to kill. You get the picture you want, that’s a kill. That’s a bullseye.”

New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. Children playing in the street. 1938. County seat of Hale County, Alabama. 1935. Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935. New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. House fronts. 1938. Sidewalk scene in Selma, Alabama. December 1935. Street scene, Kingwood, West Virginia. July 1935. Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia. July 1935.

Women selling ice cream and cake, Scotts Run, West Virginia. July 1935.

You can find a larger collection of Evans’ Great Depression photos over on Photogrammar.


“Art in America has always belonged to the people and has never been the property of an academy or a class. . . . The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration is a practical relief project which also emphasizes the best tradition of the democratic spirit. The WPA artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere. I think the WPA artist exemplifies with great force the essential place which the arts have in a democratic society such as ours.”

Thomas Hart Benton, Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corporation, Departure of the Joads, 1939, lithograph in black on wove paper, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Florian Carr Fund and Gift of the Print Research Foundation, 2008.115.14

Does art “work” or have a purpose? How?

Is making art a form of work? Make your argument for why or why not.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated that art in America has never been the sole province of a select group or class of people. Do you agree or disagree?

Define what you think Roosevelt meant by “the democratic spirit.” How do you think art can represent democratic values?

The Great Depression spanned the years 1929 to about 1939, a period of economic crisis in the United States and around the world. High stock prices out of sync with production and consumer demand for goods caused a market bubble that burst on October 24, 1929, the famous “Black Thursday” stock market crash. The severity of the market contraction affected Americans across the country. The most visible effects included widespread unemployment, homelessness, and a marked decrease in Americans’ standard of living. In addition, a severe drought produced the Dust Bowl—a series of damaging dust storms. This environmental disaster ruined many farmers during a period when the economy was largely agricultural.

In office at the time of the crash, President Herbert Hoover (term 1929–1933) was unable to stop the free fall of the American economy. His successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected president in a landslide in 1933 with campaign promises to fix the economy. Roosevelt acted quickly to create jobs and stimulate the economy through the creation of what he called “a New Deal for the forgotten man”—a program for people without resources to support themselves or their families. The New Deal was formalized as the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), an umbrella agency for the many programs created to help Americans during the Depression, including infrastructure projects, jobs programs, and social services.

Through the WPA, artists also participated in government employment programs in every state and county in the nation. In 1935, Roosevelt created the Federal Art Project (FAP) as the agency that would administer artist employment projects, federal art commissions, and community art centers. Roosevelt saw the arts and access to them as fundamental to American life and democracy. He believed the arts fostered resilience and pride in American culture and history. The art created under the WPA offers a unique snapshot of the country, its people, and art practices of the period. There were no government-mandated requirements about the subject of the art or its style. The expectation was that the art would relate to the times, reflect the place in which it was created, and be accessible to a broad public.

Artists working in the FAP and for other WPA agencies created prints, easel paintings, drawings, and photographs. Public murals were painted for display in post offices, schools, airports, housing developments, and other government buildings. Community art centers hosted exhibitions of work made by artists employed in government programs and offered hands-on workshops, led by artists, for everyone. Illustrators made detailed drawings that cataloged the physical culture and artifacts of American daily life—clothing, tools, household items. The WPA intentionally seeded arts programs and supported artists outside of urban centers. In so doing, it introduced the arts to a much more diverse swath of Americans, many of whom had previously never seen an original painting or work of art, had not met a professional artist, nor experimented with art making.