Roy Stryker and the photographers of the New Deal
If it hadn’t been for Roy Stryker a priceless collection of photographs from The Great Depression would no longer exist. It was Stryker who assembled a talented group of photographers, inspired them to great work, and fought fiercely to preserve their photo legacy. Stryker made sure the files of more than 170000 of their photos and negatives found safe haven in The Library of Congress.
In 1935, the middle of America’s greatest economic collapse, a group of President Roosevelt’s advisors, known as the brain trust, set up an agency to help farmers. It was called the Farm Security Administration or FSA. From the beginning FSA administrators realized magazine and newspaper photographs showing needy farmers would boost the chances that New Deal relief legislation would pass Congress. The development of this photo collection and its distribution to the print media was the job of the FSA’s historical section, headed by its idealistic director, Roy Emerson Stryker.
I was pretty unsophisticated when I took that job as far as how to pick a photographer. Let’s be very honest about it. In that job and elsewhere, I began to realize it was curiosity, it was a desire to know, it was the eye to see the significance around them. Very much what a journalist or a good artist is, is what I looked for. And above all else, …, a sincere, passionate love of people, and respect for people.
During the heyday of the historic section Stryker and his team of photographers wanted to do more than simply document unemployed Americans, dusty farms and long breadlines. These photographers wanted to capture genuine emotion and produce an evocative historical record for succeeding generations. They roamed the back roads of America knowing they would find unforgettable images of suffering people, but they hoped to find more. Their efforts were rewarded. They found that despite deprivation and hunger Americans held fast to their pride and individualism. These were the traits that got Americans thru The Great Depression.
“What’s impels me to click the shutter is not what things look like but what they mean.”
– Jack Delano, FSA photographer
Raised on his father’s Colorado cattle ranch, Stryker was a serious high school student and later a successful engineering undergraduate at the Colorado School of Mines, but, like his father, Roy was a socialist. Colorado offered limited choices for a young man interested in social reform. Columbia University had a more relevant curriculum and New York City promised excitement and opportunity. With almost no funds and on a whim, Stryker packed his new wife, Alice, and himself onto the train and headed east. The couple supported themselves working with orphan children at New York’s Union Resettlement House, but Stryker grew restless. He saw the children were victims of larger problems in society and he needed to find a better way to help.
After infantry service in World War I, he entered Columbia to get his degree and a better job allowing him opportunity to reform society. He threw himself into the study of economics. Stryker got his baccalaureate and stayed on as a graduate student under his mentor, and graduate adviser, economist Rexford Tugwell, who later joined Roosevelt’s brain trust. Events at Columbia shaped the rest of Stryker’s career. Tugwell needed help assembling photographs for his new economic textbook called, American Economic Life. He asked Stryker if he wanted the job. He could either pay him or put his name on the book as co-author. Stryker chose to become an author, thinking it was a better career move. The book broke new ground as an illustrated textbook. Stryker was profoundly moved by Lewis Hine’s images of abusive child labor practices. For Stryker the illustrated textbook was a visual reality check. The book inspired him to make changes in the way he taught economics as a graduate teaching assistant. What followed was a suggestion from one of his professors that changed Stryker’s career forever. Economics professor John Coss suggested that Stryker take students on walks around New York City instead of keeping them in the classroom. Coss wanted the students to see with their own eyes the squalor Jacob Riis had pictured in his book, How the other half lives. Stryker easily embraced the idea. With his students in tow Stryker visited tenements, walked picket lines, and attended union meetings. He became convinced it was better to SEE what the textbooks merely described. Stryker’s student walks were enormously popular and became part of Columbia’s required curriculum.
Stryker’s career was set at Columbia. To make people understand social conditions in need of change you had to show photographs and charts, anything to illustrate what you wanted people to understand. Stryker had found the passion of his life, what came to be called documentary photography. And this was a man who had taken very few photographs. He would become an advocate for documentary photography, and an organizer of photo projects with a social purpose. This was now his life’s work. When Tugwell went to Washington to join the New Deal, he asked Stryker to join him. Tugwell knew Stryker was the perfect man to run the new FSA’s historical section.
…when the file began to grow,…the things … brought in were fresh and exciting,…. I was particularly interested in pictures. And the files grew because pictures demanded more pictures. It was like a man who starts taking narcotics…I liked it, and I needed more…I was paid to get an education; that was fantastic. And sure, sure, I had my limitations. I look back and I don’t see how in the hell I ever survived, or how we ever got where we were.
Stryker was a humanist and idealist not a propagandist. His vision of what the historical section should do was far different from the production of images supporting New Deal policies. He thought that, if he could just hire the right photographers, his section might make a record of American history people could actually see and feel. Stryker was right. As the photo collection grew, the unmistakable conclusion was clear. Americans were getting thru their misery by holding fast to their pride. They refused to give up. For example, many dust bowl families left the hardest hit areas, but many doggedly held on to their farms through a decade of repeated dust storms, constant famine, and profound heartbreak. For many families the only source of nourishment was brine-soaked tumbleweed. Children and the elderly, already weakened by malnutrition, were especially vulnerable to what was called dust pneumonia. In this decade before penicillin, many died of this condition. For the dust bowl mothers, maintaining a clean home was a heroic struggle. Every day dust blew through cracks in doorways and windows. The women swept out the dust, usually an all day job, only to start all over after the next storm. The photos taken by the FSA photographers showed that, through all this suffering, Americans stood fast and clung to the hope better times would come. This was the paradox of The Great Depression revealed by the FSA images. Bureaucrats hoped the FSA photos would show Americans broken by poverty only to be restored to their jobs and homes by New Deal relief checks. Instead they saw undaunted courage, fierce optimism, and a determined individualism even in the face of economic ruin. Many Americans were too proud to accept government help.
“I found that a kind of individualism existed among the people, an inability to conform, a desire to be master of their own fate…the one thing I found in traveling through the United States was that every man and every woman was different.”
– Arthur Rothstein FSA photographer
The photographers Stryker assembled had a range of talent and experience. But Stryker, ever the teacher and organizer, ensured that the group grew professionally by encouraging them to review each other’s work when they met in Washington during their periodic conferences with him and other photographers. After the Washington meetings Stryker would give each photographer a new assignment complete with a syllabus of detailed information about the people and the terrain they would photograph. Inspired, the FSA photographers set off to parts of America sometimes completely new to them. Because these photographers moved around during these assignments, they were mostly out of touch with the FSA. The Washington conferences with Stryker became an essential tool to coordinate their efforts and maintain the quality of their images. In addition to money for meals, gasoline, and hotels the photographers were provided a car, a camera, and film. Each of them was expected to return unprocessed film by mail to Washington for development in the FSA photo lab. From the beginning having to mail unprocessed film became a big problem.
The photographers complained that the quality of the negatives and the resulting contact prints was uneven. Mailing unprocessed rolls and sheet film under conditions of high heat and humidity coupled with long delays in the mail played a big part in the deterioration of the film before it got to Washington. In addition the film provided to them early on had an emulsion composed of cellulose nitrate, a very unstable and potentially combustible material. Eventually the emulsion was changed to cellulose acetate and print quality improved. But it’s important to emphasize that, as government employees, the FSA photographers did not own the rights to their images and had no control over the processing of their negatives or the printing of the final photos. Many photographers never saw their finished prints. If Life or Look magazine wanted a photo for a farm story, their editors contacted Stryker who made selections from the FSA files and oversaw the production of the prints. The magazine editors often cropped the final photo in ways the photographer had not intended.
“Let’s face it, I had a group of people … I learned I could trust implicitly, they all had that fine sense of judgment. The greatest thing I can say is that at no time,… did any photographer try to be cute, to ridicule, to take advantage, to in any way show anything but respect for the person he was photographing.”
“When I began to use my 35mm camera I was never separated from it. I wore it often under my jacket, on my shoulder like a weapon in a holster. I always had the feeling that something was going to happen in front of me and when it did I wanted my camera to be there.”
– Carl Mydans FSA photographer
FSA photographers used a range of cameras from small lightweight models to the larger heavier cameras requiring a tripod or a very steady hand. New in the 1930s were the Leica and Contax holding 35mm roll film. These smaller cameras with film that could be quickly advanced during rapid shooting were favored by FSA photographers who had been photojournalists. Other FSA photographers who considered themselves professional photo artists favored the big cameras with 4 by 5 inch and 8 by 10 inch sheet film. The Speed Graphic was a camera taking a range of film from 2 ¼ by 3 ¼ to 5 by 7 inches. It was the favorite of both photojournalists and photo artists. The size of the negative determined the quality of the print and print quality was critical to photographers who thought of themselves as serious photo artists who looked forward to their work being shown in such museums as New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In1938 the FSA had its first major exhibition at the International Photographic Show at Grand Central Palace. The reviews were mixed but mostly very good. This show and the wide distribution of the FSA images in magazines and newspapers cemented the reputation of the historical section and its photographers.
When he left government in 1945 to join Standard Oil as a photo archivist and director of photography Stryker employed some of his former photographers. At Standard Oil the photos were used to promote the commercial interests of the company. Eventually Stryker made certain they were preserved by transferring them to the Photo Archives of the University of Louisville.
In 1950 Stryker joined Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum to organize and archive photos documenting the renaissance of the smoky city to an modern industrial giant. The archive was eventually transferred to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh for safe keeping.
After he left the Pittsburgh project in 1960 Stryker worked briefly for Jones and Laughlin steel company directing a documentation project. Later on he accepted various consulting jobs and conducted seminars on photojournalism at the University of Missouri. He returned to the west and died in Grand Junction Colorado in 1975.
Toward the end of his life Roy Stryker was interviewed by the Smithsonian Institution from 1963 to 1965. Reflecting on his FSA work he admitted how little he really knew about photography and how much the photographers he had hired taught him. He learned that images could express feeling as well as information.
I learned … you had to grow into this. I had none of this when I started in… your sophistication, your knowledge, your experience…you grow tremendously. I’m a far, far different guy… there would have been something wrong with me if I hadn’t turned into a different man.
 Except where noted most of the material in this essay is derived from the following reference.
Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker, 1963-1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
 Stryker, Smithsonian Interview op.cit.
 Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Jack Delano, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2010.
 Rexford Tugwell and Roy Stryker, American Economic Life, Harcourt, Brace and Company; 2nd edition (1925)
 Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890)
 Stryker, Smithsonian Interview. Op.cit.
 For an excellent description of Dust Bowl conditions see Timothy Egan, The worst hard time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.
 Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Arthur Rothstein, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2011.
 The operations of the Resettlement Administration, later the Farm Security Administration are detailed in F. Jack Hurley, Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the development of documentary photography in the thirties, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1972.
 Stryker, Smithsonian Interviews, op.cit
 Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Carl Mydans, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2011.
 The story of the public’s access to the FSA’s prints through art shows, books, and magazines is detailed in Portrait of a Decade, op.cit, pp. 122-146.
 Stryker, Smithsonian Interview, op.cit.