Book Review

Book Review: Stu Cohen’s The Likes of Us

By Jason Agress
Published: April 2009

The Likes of Us: Photography and the Farm Security Administration
Stu Cohen
Boston: Godine Press (2009)

In the midst of this current economic crisis, President Obama’s work seems awfully familiar, just as images of him seem everywhere.

It may be because, in the 1930′s, President Roosevelt had similar problems to solve. FDR called his solution the New Deal – a series of programs and policies with the goal of giving aid to the unemployed, reforming business practices, and recovering the economy. And like our current president, FDR had to build public support by informing the American public every way he could.

One program was the Farm Security Administration (FSA), initially created as the Resettlement Administration, The FSA’s purpose was to combat’€essentially’€ rural poverty by improving the life of poor farmers.

And though the FSA’s efforts are well known, one particular element has received a higher level of recognition.

The FSA photography program, aimed to portray the challenges and opportunities combating rural poverty offered. Between 1935 and 1942, a handful of photographers, some known and most not, produced a quarter million remarkable images of American life.

Stu Cohen’s The Likes of Us examines the origin, process, purpose, and – ultimately – the legacy of this influential “propaganda program. From the perspective of a journalist and critic with a passion for both photography and issues of social justice, Cohen brings a well-informed perspective.

This larger-format book prints its images with care on 208 typographically understated pages. It begins with a Foreword by Peter Bacon Hales, followed by Cohen’s narrative, a carefully selected – and ordered – collection of FSA photographs and accompanying/illustrative text. Photos are enhanced by the original, short FSA captions, and organized by photographer and location.

Since the 1960s there have been dozens of FSA books, the uniqueness of Cohen’s is his inclusion of strategically placed letters to and from the photographers, as well as the FSA’s Roy Stryker’s “shooting scripts at end.

Hales’ Foreword contextualizes Cohen’s preparations. It is clear how important this background is to understand ing Cohen’s contribution – specifically, the process of mining the FSA’s photo archives at the Library of Congress.
Hales explains the difficulty of finding specific photographs using reels of microfilm or, alternatively, sifting through extensive file cabinets of mounted prints. This introduces the concepts of pattern and order, both of which are significant throughout Cohen’s construction.

¦patterns emerge, pictures one might otherwise consider take on a new resonance or beauty (or both), and underlying narratives begin to emerge.

Later, in Cohen’s narrative, it is explained that, in the twenty-first century, a time of increasing digitalization, people might lose appreciation for physically handling a photograph and seeing it in a distinct order or grouping with others. The allegedly all-inclusive Internet ironically, he asserts, denies viewers this opportunity.

Cohen spent many years selecting both the photographs and information, sorting through the innumerable “files in the Library of Congress. Initially in a partnership with Beacon Press of Boston, Cohen had considerable flexibility but in time Beacon became “more than distracted after publishing the contested Pentagon Papers, and lost track of Cohen’s manuscript.

Undaunted, Cohen continued revision, but did not live to see his project published. The manuscript came to the attention of publisher of Boston’s David R. Godine, and Hales was asked to step in and shape the book, retaining its outlines and its themes and insights, while bringing the work into the present. Hales describes his rescue work as “a complex and enthralling task.

Cohen begins by explaining the role of photography – specifically, documentary photography – in the twentieth century, as contrasted with the nineteenth.

Though photography was invented in the nineteenth century, it was an “essentially literary period in which history was recorded primarily in words. In a sharp contrast, the twentieth century was a “visual, primarily photographic period during which “slices of history were recorded in images.

This is why, when one thinks of the Great Depression, they see still images. Likely, it is one of the most iconic images of its time, like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother, which was an FSA photograph.

Cohen argues that though not all memorable photographs of the time period were taken by the FSA, many were. These photographs serve, today, as some of the most important historical marker in the United States.
The man behind the FSA’s photographic efforts (officially named the Historical Section), Roy Emerson Stryker, was, in theory and in practice, a photo editor and visual historian (Cohen goes as far as saying the “world’s greatest).

Stryker’s role as an editor was fundamental to the organization of the Historical Section.
Though the efforts of individual photographers were at the heart of the program, Stryker brought their work together and united it under a common purpose.

He also steered his photographers in the right direction in terms of what “slices needed to be recorded. This was difficult for some of the photographers (especially the more prestigious ones) who wanted more “flexibility in their work.

Having been on both sides – as an editor and as a photographer – I understand both Stryker and the photographers.

As a photographer, one wants to explore with the different ways images can be made – whether that be emphasizing the content, the method, or the circumstances. Photographers – with good reason – feel they should not be bound by strictures that impede their abilities and potential results.

As an editor, however, the logic is quite different. Though an editor wants the best results from his photographers, he does not, most of the time, have the luxury of allowing them absolute free-reign of their work. As the one responsible for either the success or failure of a given, overall project (in Stryker’s case, the publicizing and historical archiving of the FSA), an editor must do what is needed to ensure success.
For Stryker, that meant sending his photographers “shooting scripts with rather detailed assignments as to what photos to take.

In deciding what photos Stryker wanted his FSA photographers to take and how he wanted them to be taken, though, Stryker must have, at one point, asked himself what the purpose of these photos was. His motivation came from a combination of factors. Cohen explores this question in an interesting way, by discussing, in depth, the various roles that the FSA’s photo collection might have served.

The Collection as Social Documentary
More time is spent discussing this than anything else.

Cohen asserts photography was the new form of historical archiving for the twentieth century. He implies that, just as nineteenth century historians were able to manipulate the portrayal of history in their selection, documentary photographers might work to manipulate things in the same way – whether done in their own interests, that of an editor’s, or that of an organization.

Documentary photographs are meant to present the viewer with a piece of “reality. They are consciously manipulative in intent, aiming to change or reinforce a particular view of the subject in the viewer’s mind. To obtain this result the photographer might resort to some manipulation of the “reality itself.
In light of potential bias – whether intentional or unintentional – it is important to note just what – and who – was documented.

In creating a collection of photographs – as a photographer, an editor, or a publisher – one is always looking for the “best picture. Often times this means the one that will elicit a strong reaction from the viewers.

Much of the FSA’s photos were of working class people.Why? Because in the 1930s’€as with America’s middle class now’€that’s where the story was.

What is in the photo? A photo of a middle class family at a grocery store is not normally “front page material; a photo of a dust bowl refugee in California (Dorothea Lange, February 1936), however, evokes strong feelings and, therefore, strong reactions.

So all this raises the question of whether the FSA’s photos are an actual historical archive, or if they are more like propaganda.

The answer, it seems: a little of both.

The File as Socio-Historical Evidence
Cohen explains his views on this clearly and with evocative examples.

The photographers of the FSA, he writes, were not only photographers, but also anthropologists. He uses photographer John Collier as an example:

Collier’s methodology rests primarily upon the preparation of visual studies in which photographs are used to record significant details of the social and material-cultural system of a people.
Cohen also reveals that some scholars are skeptical of the “ideals and aims that motivated Stryker and his photographers.

This, one might infer, undermines the legitimacy of FSA photographs as anthropological evidence. Though the remains of a dead body and an FSA photo of the same person could both be considered items for anthropological study, bones cannot lie about a person’s history, while a photo – depending on how and when it was taken – could be quite misleading.

Cohen does a good job describing both sides.

The Photographs as Works of Art
As an editor, I often reminded my staff that a newspaper is not a work of art. An argument always followed. Something along the lines of, “But the photos and graphics are art, or “Writing’s like an art!
What they eventually learned, however, was that, though individual pieces of the newspaper are, in their own right, works of art, the newspaper as a whole is not.

According to Cohen, it seems that the Historical Section of the FSA was similar in this respect, as it had a larger, collective purpose.

Some FSA photographers thought the world of their work – and they had every right to. In some circumstances, however, this made things very difficult.

[Walker Evans] saw the FSA as an opportunity to be paid for roaming the land creating pictures that might be useful for publicizing programs to which he shared some liberal political commitment, but which were primarily expressions of his¦artistic project.

FSA photographers were not paid to make art; instead, they were paid to document rural America and dramatize through their images the (positive) changes FDR’s New Deal was helping to make to that rural America. Big difference.

FSA photos are in one sense documents (anthropological documents, at that) from which information can be decoded and supported by or supporting conventional documents. Some of the photos – as photos – are also, works of art. Cohen writes about art exhibits that included FSA photos, he also identifies a new/old aesthetic, a particularly American quality, the vernacular.

One gallery viewer commented:

These pictures are not only works of art, but have far more social significance than any other photographs in the show.

The Photographs as Government Propaganda
One must remember that the FSA photography program was funded entirely by the United States government. It would be nice to think that the government simply wanted a photographic archive to illustrate the plight of the farmers for future generations. In reality, however, it is clear other motives were in operation.

FSA photographs served “the larger cause of the New Deal and advocated “specific responses¦in their viewers. And Cohen argues that, for the most part, this did not offend Stryker, or his photographers.
So how, specifically, were these photographs used as government propaganda?
Cohen explains that the Great Depression didn’t have the same effect on everyone:

Although the Great Depression was the worst economic calamity experienced by this nation¦it was not a constant fact of life for everybody¦Those in the cities, as a whole, lived far better than the one-third of the nation, “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished [in the rural areas]¦

FSA photographs of poverty-stricken areas captured images of resilience and strength when viewed by the rural community. They were also used as another kind of propaganda in urban areas, showing those Americans that, though the economy was bad, cities were better off.

Unlike Nazi Germany these mostly vernacular photos enhanced an inclusive, respectful attitude. These images increased morale and joined urban-dwellers into a commonality.

This propaganda also solicited sympathy from those who were skeptical of the efforts of the FSA and other New Deal programs.

The photos illustrated the suffering that Americans in rural areas lived with and, encouraged skeptics to believe these programs were necessary, and everyone’s taxes were working to actually help the afflicted.
Cohen’s explanation of the photographs as government propaganda is not only thorough, but also insightful.

As the photographers returned to the road, the pictures themselves went into a never-complete, always-evolving and adaptable library, organized by need and by impulse, by desire and demand.

This line from the end of Cohen’s narrative summarizes the legacy of the FSA Historical Section.

The photos, an invaluable Library of Congress holding, are not to be read as textbooks, nor are they an entirely independent source of historic information. But they are texts, and they do support other documents. They remain a significant element of American historical documentation.

Not only did these photographs serve the four aforementioned purposes, but also they made photography – as a craft and an art – an increasingly respected artifact of American history and its culture.

There is no overt conclusion to Cohen’s book. On the one hand we have simply a collection of FSA photographs from a remarkable collection, only a few recognized as iconic, the bulk, virtually unknown, loosely understood as vernacular.

On the other hand, our complex interest is the implicit one, the selection and organization, the way in which these particular images have been selected and organized, and the intent behind each, that is itself The Likes of Us meaning.

Cohen does a substantive job explaining and presenting the FSA’s photography program. Even for those with limited knowledge of the FSA or the larger New Deal, his narrative (and Hale’s Foreword) provides appropriate background. The Likes of Us is certainly useful for many purposes– whether American history, photography, anthropology, economics, or social policy.

The enormous collection of FSA images made between 1935 and 1942 means nothing unless it tells a story. Cohen’s important contribution is to have located something like a Cineplex version, Godine Press’ contribution is to have affirmed this value and to have’€as usual with this unusual publisher’€affirmed it so handsomely.

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