Found: Lost Great Depression Photos Capturing Hard Times on Farms, and in Town

Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, the Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion took on the task of “intro­duc­ing Amer­i­ca to Amer­i­cans” through pho­tog­ra­phy. The FSA hired Dorothea Lange, Walk­er Evans, Gor­don Parks and oth­er artists to cap­ture images of ordi­nary Amer­i­cans, specif­i­cal­ly poor farm­ers.

Some of the images are now icon­ic, notably Lange’s image of a des­ti­tute migrant moth­er of sev­en. That image and most oth­ers are cat­a­loged in the col­lec­tions of the Library of Con­gress, but some lan­guished and were for­got­ten. Oth­ers end­ed up in gen­er­al cir­cu­la­tion, so that, in the­o­ry, any­one with a library card could check out an orig­i­nal print.

Recent­ly a pho­tog­ra­phy cura­tor with the New York Pub­lic Library tracked down the miss­ing images—some 1,000 of them—and cre­at­ed a spe­cial online archive where they can final­ly be seen.

Many depict rur­al life: A 91-year-old woman sits in front of her North Car­oli­na cab­in. A work­er takes a break from carv­ing a dirt road into the New Mex­i­co land­scape. A black man in black face pre­pares to per­form in a trav­el­ing med­i­cine show. The chil­dren of migrant fruit pick­ers in Michi­gan sit for­lorn­ly on a truck.

But not all the pho­tographs doc­u­ment the plight of rur­al Amer­i­ca. Some of the col­lec­tion’s most pow­er­ful images are of Amer­i­cans strug­gling in cities. Here two young girls play out­side in a Bal­ti­more slum. Three peo­ple sit out­doors on a Sun­day in New Orleans. And then we cap­ture a scene on the Low­er East Side of New York City.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly Dorothea Lange’s work is among the strongest in this col­lec­tion. One of the most pow­er­ful images comes sev­er­al pages into her work’s archive, so be sure to click through. The sto­ry behind “From Texas ten­ant farmer to Cal­i­for­nia fruit tramp” (the first image above) sums up the era: “1927 made $7000 in cot­ton. 1928 broke even. 1929 went in the hole. 1930 went in still deep­er. 1931 lost every­thing. 1932 hit the road.”

Kate Rix is an Oak­land-based writer. See more of her work at .

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