Imagining a Time and Place: The FSA and OWI Photos from 1935-1945

In 2015, I attended the MELUS conference in Athens, GA. At one of the panels, Maria Hebert-Leiter and Bryan Giezma presented some work on their upcoming book project. They introduced me to the Photogrammar site at Yale. The site contains 170,000 photographs taken by Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Office of War Information (OWI) workers between 1935 and 1945. What I like about this site is that it provides an interactive map where a user can pinpoint a specific parish, county, photographer, and year. The map only contains about 90,000 photos that have geographical information. The ability to search in this manner allows scholars and teachers to explore numerous photos which in turn provides context to students and readers when they encounter specific literary texts or historical events. Housed at the Library of Congress, all of these photos give insight into the Great Depression and World War II in America.

Today, I just want to share a couple of the photos that I have used in my courses. On the website, Pointe Coupée Parish in Louisiana contains 106 photos. There are images of houses, stores, roads, fields, and even agricultural machinery. I am using the original captions for these images. Maria and Bryan discussed this during their presentation, and using the captions with the images provides a way for teachers to talk with students about labeling and representation.

When discussing Ernest J. Gaines’ “The Sky is Gray,” I talk about language within the story and also use images from the FSA/OWI photos to share with students images of the story’s setting. Last spring, I chose two photos and provided students with the captions. (Images below.)

Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kimball standing in doorway of farm home. They will participate in tenant purchase program. Morganza, Louisiana

Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kimball standing in doorway of farm home. They will participate in tenant purchase program. Morganza, Louisiana

Negro waiting for groceries in general store. Jarreau, Louisiana

Russell Lee took both of these photos in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana, in 1938. He also provided the captions for each image. The caption for the first image reads, “Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kimball standing in doorway of farm home. They will participate in tenant purchase program. Morganza, Louisiana.” Here, the couple standing in the door have an identity; they are Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kimball, and Lee provides this for the viewer. In the caption for the second image, though, Lee denies the woman at the counter any sense of identity apart from her race. The caption reads, “Negro waiting for groceries in general store. Jarreau, Louisiana.” Lee only refers to her as “Negro.” He does not even refer to her as a “woman.” Even if he did add “woman” to the caption, it would still deny her an identity apart from her race and gender because he does not provide the woman’s name as he does with Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kimball. There is another picture of this woman in the collection, and Lee does identify her in the caption as “Negro woman.”

Lee took the image of the African American woman waiting for groceries at a store in Jarreau, LA, a town right across the river from where Ernest J. Gaines grew up in Oscar, LA. The image reminds me of two scenes in Gaines’s story “The Sky is Gray,” when Octavia and James enter the hardware store so James can get warm and when Helena sells Octavia the salt meat at the end of the story. I can just imagine a store like this as the mother takes her son inside to warm up by a fire while she pretends to be interested in buying ax handles. Showing students this image while having them read Gaines’s story lets them see the setting and imagine the narrative in a more vivid manner.

The next image is a picture of an African American worker’s house in New Roads, LA, Bayonne in Gaines’s work. The caption does not say if the person is a sharecropper or what occupation he or she has. I would assume the person sharecrops for the owner of the plantation. Whatever the case, the image provides a reference point for the living conditions of African American sharecroppers on plantations like the ones that Gaines and others write about. I could see Eddie, Amy, and Sonny living in a house like this in Gaines’s “A Long Day in November.” There are other images as well, ones that show rows of houses like you would see in the quarters or in a factory town.

Home of Negro plantation worker near New Roads, Louisiana

There are around 88 pictures from Natchez, MS, as well. Looking at these images, I think about Eudora Welty’s story “A Worn Path.” The images show people walking around Natchez, the city where Phoenix Jackson travels to in order to get the medicine for her grandson. I could see Phoenix walking these streets after trekking through the woods. For these images, pay close attention to the captions. One image contains two white women walking down a street.  The other shows an African American man walking down the street while an African American woman looks at him from a window.

Two women walking along street, Natchez, Mississippi
Scene in Natchez, Mississippi

Ben Shahn took both of these pictures and wrote the captions. Notice that Shahn does not provide an identifier markers in the bottom image. He does, for some images, provide captions such as “Negro quarter” or “Negro children,” but most of the time, he does not even use those terms. Instead, most images just carry the caption “Natchez, Mississippi.” This does not seem like something that we should interrogate; however, most of the images are of African Americans in Natchez. Shahn does not identify the two white women above as “white,” but he does identify as them “women.” He does not even provide the gender of the African American subjects. What does this say?

Thinking about Carson McCullers‘s Reflections in a Golden Eye, images from Columbus, GA, may be beneficial. McCullers’s novel takes place on an Army base, modeled after Fort Benning. Pictures on the Photogrammar site show images of soldiers at the base, white and African American soldiers. What is important here, not necessarily in relation to McCullers’s novella, is that there are images of African American soldiers training for the World War II. It would be an excellent way to introduce a discussion of African American involvement, or restricted involvement, in not only World War II but in World War I and other wars as well. Below, you will see three taken by Alfred T. Palmer in Columbus, with captions. The first shows construction workers near Fort Benning. Notice how detailed the caption is here. The second displays two African American soldiers standing in front of a barber shop. The final image shows an African American who, the caption says, has returned South after working in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. This image provides a frame of reference for migration and for August Wilson’s works. There are around 700 pictures from the Pittsburgh region on the site.

Construction workers on porch of local boarding house on highway near Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia. They pay six dollars a week, several in a room. They are employed on Belair Construction job building defense housing project

Negro soldiers. Columbus, Georgia
Beggar. Columbus, Georgia. He worked for many years the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Aliquippa

This is only a small sampling of the images available on the Yale website from the Library of Congress. While I have focused on the South, the collection covers the entire United States. There are photographs from Gordon Parks, Marion Post Walcott, Dorthea Lange, and many more. The images throughout the site provide a context for students that will help to illuminate the texts they read or the history they learn.

Typically, I introduce the site to students in class then have them look around for a few minutes. They must find a picture that relates to a text we have read then they share that image with the class. The students must discuss how their images enlighten our discussions of the material and they must think about the caption that the photographer provided and how that caption works to construct the identity of the photograph’s subject(s).

Take a spin around the site. If you find images that match with texts you are teaching, or reading, let me know. Please share them in the comments below because the archive is massive. 

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