"If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs ..."
-- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
It's hard to deny the potency of a good photograph, which is why, starting in 1935, the fledgling Farm Security Administration sent photographers across the country to take pictures in an effort to document the lives of Americans hardest hit by the Depression and drum up support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
A sharecropper on a Sunday morning near Little Rock.
People wait in line for food after the flood of 1937.
A Conway woman is the subject of a photo Dorothea Lange called Arkansas Hoosier.
Church members gather after services in Little Rock.
Makeshift kneepads were worn by young cotton pickers.
Over eight years, nearly 250,000 photos were taken of migrant workers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers and laborers. About 1,000 are identified with Arkansans and about 800 were taken in the state. Of those, just over 180 are gathered thoughtfully, poignantly in Patsy G. Watkins' It's All Done Gone: Arkansas Photographs From the Farm Security Administration Collection, 1935-1943 (University of Arkansas Press, 250 pages, $39.95).
From Delta cotton fields to rough-looking Ozark homesteads, photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein and others captured the everyday struggles of some of Arkansas' poorest residents, people who had been suffering years before the 1929 stock market crash sent the country into the Depression.
Their photographs recorded families and individuals in the fields and at school, preparing meals, hanging around a town square or sitting on a porch. There are pictures of crumbling shacks as well as clean, new houses on resettlement farms in places like Lakeview, Dyess Colony and Lake Dick. There are images of people displaced by the devastating flood of 1937 and solemn portraits filled with dignity.
"Patsy really poured her heart and soul into this. She set the standard as to how you handle a photojournalism project," says Gerald Jordan, a professor at the University of Arkansas school of journalism who edited early drafts of the book. "It represents a significant milestone in our history. This book really shows the grit and determination of folk in that era, and I think people can learn a lot about what this meant and how people achieved against extraordinary odds."
Robert Cochran, author of A Photographer of Note: Arkansas Artist Geleve Grice, says the photographs show "a beautiful picture of this state at an unbeautiful time of tremendous stress and social trauma."
. . .
Watkins recently retired as professor and chair of the journalism department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, after more than 30 years at the school.
She started work on It's All Done Gone about three years ago, studying similar projects from Florida, Michigan and other states. She came up with an excellent format, dividing the book into 11 chapters with brief essays preceding each of them and detailed captions for the photos. There is also an illuminating introduction to the book in which Watkins details the origins of the FSA, the photo project, its photographers, race, economy and other subjects. In the final chapter, Watkins writes of the project's end and influence.
"These are the photos that really stood out, that exemplified the major themes in the Arkansas photographs," she says of the pictures she chose. "My goal was not an academic book. The writing was in service of the photographs, to anchor them, and is about what was going on at that time historically and culturally. When you look at a picture, you know something about what led to that image, why the photographer took it."
The issue of poverty and how the poor are treated still resonates, she says, long after the last FSA photo was taken.
"It struck me how attitudes toward the poor have persisted over these 80 years. During the Great Depression, it was common to see expressions about the 'unworthiness' of the poor, as if their great misfortune was their own fault: They just didn't work hard enough, they were indolent, lazy, etc. But we hear those same attitudes about the poor today. In both cases -- the 1930s and in 2018 -- those criticisms result from the choice to not learn the facts and to view a group of people as a mass rather than as individuals. This, of course, was one of the goals of FSA photographers, to focus on the individual, to show his/her suffering and worthiness of assistance."
In the first chapter, Cotton, Watkins assembles a series of images related to the state's then-dominant crop and its complicated relationship with the people who planted and picked it. The crop's influence on race, economy and class was a bountiful muse to the photographers. About a fourth of all the FSA photos taken in Arkansas featured cotton, Watkins says.
There is a stack of cotton piled in front of a house; there are trucks hauling "cotton hoers" to the fields; an image of workers bent over and dragging long sacks as they pick the snow white blooms; and a touching photo of a young girl in a tattered sweater as she looks at a cotton boll while someone works next to her in worn out shoes.
From the cotton fields Watkins leads the reader into chapters like Tenants, Sharecroppers, and Rehabilitation Clients; Houses; Arkansas African Americans; Food; Children; Portraits; The Flood of 1937 and others.
There is also a chapter on resettlement farms, such as those in Dyess Colony (Johnny Cash's family lived there), Lakeview and Plum Bayou, where disadvantaged farmers got a fresh start through a federal relief program founded by the Department of Agriculture's Rexford Tugwell.
"That program surprised me," Watkins says. "Arkansas had 16 resettlement farm projects, which is more than any other state had. It seemed astonishing until you start drilling into just what a poor state Arkansas was at the time."
. . .
Perhaps most striking is the chapter on portraits.
Watkins uses a 1973 quote from Roy Stryker, who oversaw the photo project for the FSA, in her introduction to the section.
"But the faces to me were the most significant part of the file. When a man is down and they have taken from him his job and his land and his home -- everything he spent his life working for -- he's going to have the expression of tragedy permanently on his face. But I have always believed that the American people have the ability to endure. And that is in those faces, too."
The book's title, in language so aptly Arkansas rural, comes from a quote in a caption accompanying Lange's portrait of a Conway woman she called "Arkansas Hoosier."
"Now, none of my children own their land. It's all done gone, but it raised my family," she told Lange.
The woman's name, like so many in the FSA photos, is lost to time. The photographers, who forged a new "social documentary" style of photojournalism, are still remembered.
Lange and Evans are the two most well-known of the FSA picture takers. Lange's 1936 photo Migrant Mother, taken for the FSA in California, is one of the most famous of American photographs. Evans took the images for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee's lyrical, meticulously detailed 1941 book about his time spent with three tenant farm families in Depression-era Alabama.
But work from the other photographers, like Shahn -- a painter whose first photos from the South helped start the project -- Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Carl Mydans (that's his photo on the cover), Russell Lee and Edwin Locke is just as powerful.
"They were all-stars," says Cochran, a professor in the UA's Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies, Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. "It was a stroke of luck that the people who just wanted to publicize the New Deal put together this cohort of great photographers. They were fabulous photographic artists."
The FSA wasn't a particularly popular program with some members of Congress and large farm interests. Funding was often precarious, Watkins writes. By 1941 and '42 attention had shifted, and the pictures were more about the country ramping up its industrial strength as World War II loomed. The project was finally absorbed in 1943 by the Office of War Information, though not before Stryker had all of the FSA photos transferred to the Library of Congress, where they are available for download.
That's where Watkins went, in search of the photographic record of what it was like for some of Arkansas' most vulnerable residents during that bleak time, when someone picking cotton might make 60 cents a day.
"To me, this is a subject that should be presented to Arkansans who want to know something about the experience of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents," she says, "or to someone who is simply interested in the history of the state. I wanted to present these photographs to them."
Style on 10/07/2018
Print Headline: Gone: Arkansans’ struggle during the Depression documented in poignant new book