It occurred to a photographer traveling with William Taft during the 1908 presidential campaign to take this picture of the people of De Witt, Nebraska, running to catch up with Taft’s slowing train. Taft, a Republican and then vice-president, was running to succeed Theodore Roosevelt. It was the hey-day of the whistle-stop campaign, which Roosevelt had taken to new extremes. In an age when newspaper was the nation’s reigning mass media, seeing a leading politician in person was rare and precious. In a small town, the visit of a future president generated universal excitement.
The image registers photography’s growing ability to capture the spontaneous action of everyday scenes. Despite the movement of the crowd (and the train), the camera captures the running townspeople and the setting with remarkable clarity. A woman in an enormous hat smiles while shielding her eyes from the sun; the flags’ stripes flap crisply over others as they run; in the distance, a retreating train billows exhaust. A decade earlier, such a photograph would likely have been an impossible blur.
Technical advances had widened the scope of photography, which in turn began comprehending more of the scene: not just frozen dignitaries but the living, breathing citizens they aspired to lead.
An overseer and two grimy boy doffers face the photographer in a Birmingham, Alabama, textile factory.
The textile mill epitomized mechanized industry, which made humans servants of machines. Textile manufacture was one of the earliest industries in the US, one often associated with ‘sweated’ labor. Exploitative practices reached an apogee in the late nineteenth-century American South, where mills employed black and white workers with no other prospects, drawing in many poor Appalachian families. Conditions in the mills were such that workers (many of them children) were virtually enslaved. Despite laboring incessantly, they lived in poverty, without recourse to their employer’s authority. The overseer in this picture boasted of having 30 doffers to do his bidding. The doffers’ job was to run to replace full spindles with empty ones to keep the looms running smoothly.
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car. The year is 1903. The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.
By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody. Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy. The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.
Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys. Who was the photographer? Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time? Did he even consent? His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.
A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition. That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today. The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression. That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.
Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.
The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.
Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.
For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’ A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.
Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.
Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.
Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.
Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white. As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.
Houses and factories. Unidentified photographer. From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.
The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science. Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology. Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.
All images from the Library of Congress. Click on an image to go to its source.