“The Pictures Are the Thing”: Farm Security Administration Photographers Document the American Factory in the Depression Era

By Rick Halpern

The 1930s were a formative period for documentary photography in the United States. The twin phenomena of the Great Depression and the emergence of a militant workers’ movement gave photographers interested in the working class a surfeit of material to shoot. Moreover, changes in camera technology meant that portable and relatively inexpensive cameras could be taken almost anywhere. Photography clubs multiplied, and shared darkrooms meant that as both vocation and avocation photography became affordable and tremendously popular. From the standpoint of the social historian, though, the most important intervention was institutional: starting in 1935 a government agency, the Farm Security Administration, began hiring photographers and dispatching them across the country to document the lives of ordinary people. This was part of a more general federal effort to provide work to unemployed writers and artists, as well as to utilize their creative work to generate support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Some of the most prominent visual artists of the period lent their talent to this endeavor – Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Arthur Rothstein, to name a few – and at the project’s conclusion a decade later they had captured more than 170,000 images.[1]

Figure 1. Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” 1936.[3]

The size and scope of this archive forms something close to a comprehensive visual record of the era and has provided scholars with a seemingly endless source for books and articles on the documentary tradition. Yet although working class themes stand out boldly in these photographs, relatively few document the American factory and, for the most part, the vast scholarly literature on the FSA photographers downplays the workplace.[2] In fact, if any theme dominates the corpus of work shot by these artists-cum-public servants, it is human tenacity and dignity in the face of the dispossession and hardships of the Great Depression. Nowhere is this more evident than in the era’s most iconic image, Dorothea Lange’s portrait “Migrant Mother” (figure 1); it also is clearly seen in Evans’ documentary work among sharecroppers in the rural South (figures 2 and 3) and in many of the now classic rural images captured in the mid-1930s by non FSA photographers, such as Margaret Bourke-White (figure 4).


Figures 2 (left) and 3 (right). Walker Evans, “Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama,” and “Floyd Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama,” 1936.[4]


Figure 4. Margaret Bourke-White, “Maiden Lane, Georgia,” 1937.[5]

This is not to suggest that industrial work sites do not appear in appear in FSA photographs, but rather that when these documentarians turned their camera’s lenses toward the shop floor, they tended to focus on buildings, machinery, and the products of labor rather than on workers themselves. “Capitalism pushes the worker out of the frame” writes historian Erica Toffoli; while our eyes focus elsewhere “the producer remains in our blind spot.”[6] Certainly this is true of two of the most talented FSA photographers, Jack Delano and John Vachon.[7] The former’s superb shots of New England textile mills and the latter’s images of midwestern stockyards and packinghouses depict hulking structures and massively scaled animal pens but workers, even when they appear in the frame, are afterthoughts (figures 5-8).


Figure 5. Jack Delano, “One of the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts,” 1941.[8]


Figure 6. Jack Delano, “Large textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts,” 1941.[9]


Figure 7. John Vachon, “Swift packing plant. South Omaha, Nebraska,” 1938.[10]


Figure 8. John Vachon, “Sheep entering the stockyards. South Omaha, Nebraska,” 1938.[11]


Figure 10. Marjory Collins, “Woman operating an axle lathe at the New York Car Wheel Company,”1943.[13]

Some FSA photographers entered worksites and shot images of the shop floor. Oddly, the vast majority of these photographs seem posed, and human labor emerges as statue-like and unnatural. To be fair several of these visual artists set out to document a fuller record of workers’ lives, capturing their families, homes, and recreational activities. Arthur Rothstein’s Pittsburgh steel portraits, for instance, need to be placed and understood in this larger creative context– even if the workplace photographs are less than successful (figure 9).[12] One standout exception – and a relatively unrecognized photographer – was Marjory Collins, whose Buffalo, New York, series brilliantly documents the entry of women into defense production in the early years of World War II (figures 10 and 11). Collins’ shop floor photographs are valuable for the way they depict motion and worker interactivity (including across lines of race), and her work on laborers’ social and cultural lives is notable for its capturing of intimacy and conviviality in the working-class neighborhoods that surrounded the plants (figures 12 and 13).


Figure 9. Arthur Rothstein, “Steel Worker at Rolling Mill, Pittsburgh,” 1938.[14]


Figure 11 (left). Marjory Collins, “Woman learning to operate an axle lathe at the New York Car Wheel Company,” 1943.[15] Figure 12 (right). Marjory Collins, “Buffalo, New York. Italian-American woman eating her lunch brought from home in the shop at the New York Car Wheel Company,” 1943.[16]


Figure 13. Marjory Collins, “Buffalo, New York. Tired swingshift workers sitting on the sidelines at the swingshift dance held weekly from midnight to 4 a.m. at the Main-Utica ballroom,” 1943.[17]

Collins’ background in magazine work may have predisposed her toward visual essays that captured the human dimension of industrial work, but equally as important was the timing of her government employment. She joined federal photographic ranks in 1942, just as the FSA shifted its focus to documenting the war effort on the home front, and photographing the “arsenal of democracy” in action was a priority for the rechristened Office of War Information.[18] The most enduring images to emerge from this enterprise were Alfred T. Palmer’s color photographs of newly mobilized female munitions workers, “Rosie the Riveters,” used to advertise for war bonds. But these pictures were drawn from a much larger body of work Palmer produced in the aircraft plants around Long Beach, California, that capture not just the feminization of the workforce but its racial integration in the early 1940s.[19] While many of these photos clearly are posed, several are shots of actual work being performed in collective fashion (figures 14-15).

Figure 14. Alfred Palmer, “Production. B-17F heavy bombers. A riveting crew at the Long Beach, California, plant of Douglas Aircraft Company, assembles the frame of a nacelle for a B-17F heavy bomber,” 1942.[20]

Figure 15. Alfred Palmer,“The six plane factories of the Douglas Aircraft Co have been termed an industrial melting pot,” 1942.[21]

By all accounts, government photographers were given strict instructions during the war. Unlike the more open agenda they freely pursued under the FSA in the 1930s, they now worked in service to the state to produce propaganda. Roy Stryker, the mercurial impresario who headed the FSA’s photographic endeavors, battled to preserve the project in the face of bureaucratic pressures, arguing that “the pictures are the thing,” and that art needed to co-exist with propaganda.[22] Many of the federal photographers managed to balance these competing imperatives or – to put it another way – some of the more talented photographers were able accept the new assignment of documenting the home front and episodically rise to the occasion with images that encapsulated the praxis of sentient labor. The standout example in this regard is Dorothea Lange’s shot of a shift changing at the giant Kaiser shipyards near Oakland, California (figure 16).

Figure 16. Dorothea Lange, “Shipyard Shift Change, Richmond, CA,” 1942.[23]

The spontaneous jubilance and comradery displayed by the women here points away, radically, from the sterile posed propaganda of Rosie the Riveter. The bold humanity and emotional content of the photo also stands in stark contrast to the simple technics of industrial reality captured, however powerfully, by Delano and Vachon. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of images of this quality shot by superb but relatively unknown photographers exist in the FSA archives. Historians of industry and labor, especially those interested in glimpses of work redeemed from alienation, will find much of value as they explore and excavate this rich source.


[1] These now reside at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The collection is known as the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives; the vast majority of the images have been digitized and are publicly available: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/.

[2] A good starting point in this body of literature is John Raeburn in A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of Thirties Photography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); see also Stuart Kidd, Farm Security Administration Photography, the Rural South, and the Dynamics of Image-making, 1935-1943 (Lewinston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004). Also well worth consulting is Cara A. Finnegan, “FSA Photography and New Deal Visual Culture,” in Thomas Benson, ed. American Rhetoric in the New Deal Era, 1932-1945 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2006).

[3] Known widely as “Migrant Mother,” the actual title of this photograph, and the others in the series that Lange shot in a California migrant labor camp in 1936, is “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” The series can be viewed here: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017762891/.

[4] Walker Evans, “Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017762301/ and “Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017762300/.

[5] Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, “Maiden Lane, Georgia,” You Have Seen Their Faces (New York: Modern Age Books, 1937). More information about this collaborative project available here: https://lis471.wordpress.com/margaret-bourke-white/ and here: https://carlwhetham.photo.blog/2017/01/08/erskine-caldwell-margaret-bourke-white-you-have-seen-their-faces/.

[6] Erica Toffoli, “Alienating Exposures: Photographing the Activity of Labor,” Photography & Culture 13:2 (June 2020), 198.

[7] Delano, born Jacob Ovcharov in Russia, emigrated to the USA in 1923. In the early 1930s he was a serious fine art student, coming to the attention of the FSA when he submitted some sample photographs he had shot in and around Philadelphia. An 1965 oral history interview with him at the Smithsonian can be accessed here: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-jack-and-irene-delano-13026. John Vachon hailed from a French Canadian family in St Louis. He started as a messenger with the FSA and, borrowing equipment from other photograhers, taught himself the art of the camera. A 1964 Smithsonian interview with Vachon can be accessed here: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-john-vachon-11830.

[8] Jack Delano, “One of the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1941,” http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8c04253/.

[9] Jack Delano, “Large textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1941,” http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8c04249/. Equally as impressive and underscoring this point is Delano’s 1941 photograph “Textile mill working all night in Lowell, Massachusetts,” http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c04351; here the power and vitality of production is captured with the lights inside the factory attesting to life and energy amidst a deserted snow-littered exterior street scene. Clearly Delano and other FSA photographers were aware of, and influenced by, Soviet industrial photography in this same period. Several of these photographers were close to the CPUSA and active in the Photo League – for general treatment see Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

[10] John Vachon, “Swift packing plant. South Omaha, Nebraska, 1938,” http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b14156.

[11] John Vachon, “Sheep entering the stockyards. South Omaha, Nebraska, 1938,” http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8b14189/.

[12] Rothstein grew up in New York City and attended Columbia University, where he became interested in photography and began a journalistic career editing the college newspaper. One of his professors, Roy Stryker, was appointed to run the FSA’s photographic division when it was established and immediately called on his old student. Rothstein, in fact, was the division’s first hire. More information about him can be found via the Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project: https://arthurrothstein.org/.

[13] Marjory Collins, “Woman operating an axle lathe at the New York Car Wheel Company, 1943,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017851304/

[14] Arthur Rothstein, “Steel Worker, Pittsburgh, 1938,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017776840/. More successful, artistically, are the head shot portraits of rolling mill workers Rotstein created on the same trip; see for instance https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017776765/ and https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017776769/.Marjory Collins, “Woman operating an axle lathe at the New York Car Wheel Company, 1943,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017851304/.

[15] Marjory Collins, “Woman learning to operate an axle lathe at the New York Car Wheel Company, 1943,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017851331/.

[16] Marjory Collins, “Buffalo, New York. Italian-American woman eating her lunch brought from home in the shop at the New York Car Wheel Company, 1943,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017851312/.

[17] Marjory Collins, “Buffalo, New York. Tired swingshift workers sitting on the sidelines at the swingshift dance held weekly from midnight to 4 a.m. at the Main-Utica ballroom, 1943,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017850973/. See also, from the same series, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017850981/ and https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017850971/.

[18] Collins worked for PM and US Camera in the 1930s. See Andrea Fisher, Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: Women Photographers for the US Government 1935 to 1944 (London: Pandora, 1987); see also the brief biographical sketch that is part of the FSA/OWI digital collection: https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/womphotoj/collinsessay.html.

[19] Some of these photographs, as well as the war bond ads, can be viewed here: https://www.flickr.com/search/?text=Rosie%20the%20Riveter%2C%20Library%20of%20Congress and here: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=Douglas%20Aircraft&co=fsa.

[20] Alfred T. Palmer, “Production. B-17F heavy bombers. A riveting crew at the Long Beach, California, plant of Douglas Aircraft Company, assembles the frame of a nacelle for a B-17F heavy bomber,1942,” https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017695373/.

[21] The full title assigned this photograph is worth noting: Alfred T. Palmer, “The six plane factories of the Douglas Aircraft Company have been termed an industrial melting pot, since men and women of fifty-eight national origins work side by side in pushing America’s plane output,” 1942, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017872237/.

[22] The tension between art and propaganda within the FSA is handled sensitively by Raeburn in A Staggering Revolution, 146-151.

[23] Dorothea Lange, “Shipyard Shift Change, Richmond, CA, 1942,” https://dorothealange.museumca.org/image/shipyard-end-of-shift-at-yard-1/A67.137.42083.3/.

Rick Halpern is a social historian whose work has focused on race and labor in a number of national and international contexts. His most recent book length publication, co-authored with Alex Lichtenstein, is Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid. He also has written about meat and meatpacking, sugar and plantations, and regionalism. Currently he is researching the long interplay between photography, race, and class in the Canada and United States over the course of the twentieth century. He is the Bissell-Heyd Chair of American Studies at the University of Toronto.

Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:

Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.

Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, 5 March 2021.

André Weißenfels, Middle Class Factory: The (partial) privilege of industrial labor in Tunisia, 19 March 2021.

Citation: Rick Halpern, “The Pictures Are the Thing”: Farm Security Administration Photographers Document the American Factory in the Depression Era, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.03.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/27552.

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