The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography

Overview

Between 1935 and 1942, photographers for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration (FSA) captured in powerfully moving images the travail of the Great Depression and the ways of a people confronting radical social change. Those who speak of the special achievement of FSA photography usually have in mind such white icons as Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" or Walker Evans's Alabama sharecroppers. But some six thousand printed images, a tenth of FSA's total, included black figures or ...
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Overview

Between 1935 and 1942, photographers for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration (FSA) captured in powerfully moving images the travail of the Great Depression and the ways of a people confronting radical social change. Those who speak of the special achievement of FSA photography usually have in mind such white icons as Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" or Walker Evans's Alabama sharecroppers. But some six thousand printed images, a tenth of FSA's total, included black figures or their dwellings. At last, Nicholas Natanson reveals both the innovative treatment of African Americans in FSA photographs and the agency's highly problematic use of these images once they had been created. While mono-dimensional treatments of blacks were common in public and private photography of the period, such FSA photographers as Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Jack Delano were well informed concerning racial problems and approached blacks in a manner that avoided stereotypes, right-wing as well as left-wing. In addition, rather than focusing exclusively on FSA-approved agency projects involving blacks - politically the safest course - they boldly addressed wider social and cultural themes. This study employs a variety of methodological tools to explore the political and administrative forces that worked against documentary coverage of particularly sensitive racial issues. Moreover, Natanson shows that those who drew on the FSA photo files for newspapers, magazines, books, and exhibitions often entirely omitted images of black people and their environment or used devices such as cropping and captioning to diminish the true range of the FSA photographers' vision.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Natanson's agenda is revealed in the ``Acknowledgments'' to the text, where he thanks his parents for giving him ``the courage to resist the formidable winds of Marxism and post-structuralism.'' The first chapter, entitled ``Politics and Culture,'' borders on a testy rant against critical approaches (such as deconstructivist and feminist studies) that differ from Natanson's own. Obviously addressing an academic audience, Natanson discounts the ideas of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault as well as those of several photohistorians who have published works on a Farm Security Administration imagery. He offers instead a methodology of ``historical framing,'' i.e., contextual analysis. Originally a dissertation, the book offers a bounty of information laced with too much scholarly interpretation for the mainstream reader, although the chapters on Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Russell Lee are somewhat more accessible. For academic collections.-- Kathy J. Anderson, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870497247
  • Publisher: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1992
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 305
  • Product dimensions: 6.03 (w) x 9.31 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 Politics and Culture: New Deals, Old Deals 1
2 FSA Photography: Administrative Contexts, Quantitative Measures 49
3 The Photo-Series: Ben Shahn's Southern Meditations 85
4 The Photo-Series: Arthur Rothstein and the Missouri Bootheel 113
5 The Photo-Series: Russell Lee, Chicago, and the 1940s 142
6 The FSA Black Image in the Marketplace 203
Notes 269
Selected Bibliography 291
Index 299
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