Farm Security Administration Photography. The Rural South, and the Dynamics of Image-Making 1935-1943

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This study explores the FSA photographic project’s engagement with the South from 1935-1943. In particular it describes Roy Stryker’s Historical Section as an arm of the liberal state and as an adjunct of the mass communications industry. It charts the project’s coverage of southern tenant farmers, African Americans, small towns and mechanized farms, from the schedules devised in Washington headquarters, through the photographers’ work in the field, to the use of FSA images by the national media. The images are explained in terms of an interaction between the administrative dynamics of New Deal politics and the practices and preconceptions of the photographers. Underlying, and often reinforcing, this tension was a dissonance expressed by many southern subjects toward the agency’s ideals or the photographers themselves. The book contains 40 images drawn from the RA/FSA/OWI files, many of which have not been featured in previous studies.


“The writing is straightforward and powerful. Dr. Kidd captures not only the spirit of many of the photographers who participated in the program but also the harsh, sometimes difficult, conditions under which they worked. He discusses the origins and significance of the project without getting bogged down in bureaucratic jargon ... Dr. Kidd has selected his illustrations wisely both as to subjects and photographers ... captures the spirit of the times in words just as the photographers captured the spirit on film. This book should be of interest not only to scholars of United States history, but also to educated general readers.” – Walter B. Edgar, Director, Institute for Southern Studies, University of South Carolina

“Dr. Kidd’s manuscript emphasizes institutional history, but enriches that history by assessing the significance of groups of photographs and by offering perceptive analysis of individual examples ... This detailed revaluation of Stryker (covering everything from his attitude towards regional officials to his views on photography, including the use of colour) alone warrants the appearance in print of this study ... Dr. Kidd’s depiction of Stryker is matched by and interwoven with his description of the South in the 1930s (as it haltingly revealed itself)and will prove a valuable resource for students and academics ... With its sophisticated account of the Southern small town, its alertness to change and modernisation and its informed treatment of racial matters, it reconstructs a segment of southern history and captures a truly American experience.” – Dr. Ralph Willet, Senior Fellow, The University of Hull

“My overall view is one of awe that anyone could not only undertake the amount of research evidenced in the materials, but that they could be so perceptive about the management of a bureaucratic agency funded by the federal government. This is the work of an historian who has quite literally plowed through the documents and the images until he is sure that no stone has been left unturned. But not only has the research been thorough; it has been used effectively to create a document which is essential reading for a range of academics and their students. It is a classic monograph.” – Professor Margaret Walsh, The University of Nottingham

“ ... Dr. Kidd offers solid contributions to the field of southern studies: insights into the FSA’s productive relationships with academics and their research projects; explanations for the notable absence of southern cities and industrial labor in the pictures and the notable presence of African Americans in the file (even though few media outlets requested or used these images); and a full conceptualization of southern tenancy ...” – Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Summer 2005

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The South Faces the Shutter
2. The Historical Section as Administrative Vision: Roy Stryker and the South
3. The Bureaucracy of Landscape: Directives, Spectacles and the Southern Terrain
4. Damned and Delivered: The Reinvention of the Southern Mountain Poor
5. The Southern Tenant Farmer as the Problem, the People, and a Plaintiff
6. Imaging and Imagining African Americans: The Politics of Cultural Representation
7. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and its Consequences
8. The South, Being and Becoming: Sentiment, Sociology, and the Small Town
9. And the War Came
Bibliography; Index

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