ROTHSTEIN: THE TRUTH ABOUT SKULLS

Text by Bruce Berman

Arthur Rothstein was hand picked by Director Roy Stryker to be one of the original photographers for the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration/FSA). The unit was birthed to be an explainer for agriculture projects that benefited the agrarian sectors of Depression-ravish America. Rothstein’s “eye” was excellent, his technical skills first rate and he always came back with the goods and then some.

Why doesn’t he get the attention of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans, or, even, Russell Lee?

Was it the cow skull “controversy?”

Perhaps.

For me this “controversy has always seemed,well… overblown. He moved the skull several times and then, finally, settled on the one we all know.

South Dakota Badlands, 1936, Photo by Arthur Rothstein for the FSA

Was he (visually) lying?

I think not.

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NO NET AMERICA

Migrant family on highway, California, 1937

Photograph by Dorothea Lange

Extended Caption: California at Last: Example of self-resettlement in California. Oklahoma farm family on highway between Blythe and Indio. Forced by the drought of 1936 to abandon their farm, they set out with their children to drive to California. Picking cotton in Arizona for a day or two at a time gave them enough for food and gas to continue. On this day, they were within a day’s travel of their destination, Bakersfield, California. Their car had broken down en route and was abandoned.

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CROPDUSTER

Cropduster by ©Charles O’Rear, DOCUMERICA/NARA

 

The DOCUMERICA project was created in 1972 and its Director, Gifford Hampshire, tried to recreate the all-encompassing visual story of America that Roy Stryker began in 1936 with the Farm Security Administration project that told the story of the Depression and, more generally, the story of America as it struggled through the Depression and then toward the end in 1939, told the story of a strong America, preparing for war.

Charles O’Rear was one of the notable photographers for DOCUMERICA. For more about him, including the story of how he created Bliss (the iconic Microsoft screen image) view: https://youtu.be/_G5Z8aMctBw

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WELCOME TO AMERICA AND ALL THAT GAS

Bracero fumigatio, Leonard Nadal

Bracero workers being fumigated, 1956,
Photograph by Leonard Nadel, NMAH,
History of Technology Collections,

Photo by Leonard Nadel

Editor’s Note: The Bracero program addressed the issue of demand for labor and the need for work. It was a cooperative program that allowed America’s work needs to utilize the need  of Mexico’s workers’ need for employment. It was legal, it was effective and it was a clear win-win program. Therefore it did not last. Too logical. And here we are now, 52 years later, with America needing workers, Mexicans needing employment and total chaos at the border. One could ask, is this chaos or planned exploitation?

Here is a mini-history of the Bracero Program. Let the discussion begin.

Text by Smithsonian National Museum of American History The Bracero program (1942 through 1964) allowed Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. Over the program’s 22-year life, more than 4.5 million Mexican nationals were legally contracted for work in the United States (some individuals returned several times on different contracts). Mexican peasants, desperate for cash work, were willing to take jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. The Braceros’ presence had a significant effect on the business of farming and the culture of the United States. The Bracero program fed the circular migration patterns of Mexicans into the U.S.

Several groups concerned over the exploitation of Bracero workers tried to repeal the program. The Fund for the Republic supported Ernesto Galarza’s documentation of the social costs of the Bracero program. Unhappy with the lackluster public response to his report, Strangers in Our Fields, the fund hired magazine photographer Leonard Nadel to produce a glossy picture-story exposé.

Presented here is a selection of Nadel’s photographs of Bracero workers taken in 1956: shttp://s.si.edu/1gRD3VJ for Nadel’s photographs and other resources.

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LANGE AND HER TRANSCRIBED TEXT

Dorothea Lange and the Walkers “Toward Los Angeles.”California,

March 1937 by Dorothea Lange for FSA

 “Next Time Try The Train– Relax.”  

Lange captioned this with the walkers own words: “Well– give me the fare and I will, buddy.  We ain’t walkin’ for our health…”

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MIGRATION 30s STYLE

Dorothea Lange "Ten Children"

Ten Children, March 1937, by Dorothea Lange,
for the RA (courtesy of OMCA)

Text by Bruce Berman
Migrants looking for work goes back the very beginning of America, from the English/Europeans at Jamestown and beyond. One could arguably say that “Native Americans” descended from migrants from China, coming across the Bering land bridge.
In Lange’s era, as the economic Depression of the 1930s deepened and the ecological disasters of drought and erosion progressed there was a massive infra-country migration, primarily from the Great Plains and Texas/Oklahoma, mostly heading west to California.
This migration was heavily documented by the FSA and by others.
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The Funklands

The Funklands are where you find them, and, when.

Bruce Berman started this project when he was in his early 20s, in the 1970s, and just starting out in photography. He cruised the highways and the low-ways of America, no particular agenda, stopping often (to the consternation of those driving with him), always looking for the funk, the detritus of other eras, the iconography of his youth and the times before him.

This America is now almost gone. It hangs over bars in places like Austin or Madison, Los Angeles or Chicago. The Funklands have turned into “Fly Over” territory, still there, still quasi rural, but  now, unrobed. The structure of the Funklands, textured, bold, spectacular, has been replaced by franchised plastic, flatness, sameness.

We celebrate corporate identity in the iconography of now, not roosters and skeletons and old Cadillacs.

The Funk has turned from delight to nothingness. Occasionally  there is a McDonald’s that riffs on a local theme, but pretty much not.

The Funk is hard to find.

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BRIDGE TO SOMEWHERE

Bridge to Somewhere, El Paso, Texas. ©2015 Bruce Berman
Bridge to Somewhere, El Paso, Texas. ©2015 Bruce Berman
Text and Words by Bruce Berman

 

The meteorologists call this a “High Pressure system being pushed out by a Low Pressure system.”

Photographers will admit “every once in a while things come together and you get a lucky.”

What do I call it? What does one get for being out there, every evening and every day, always with your “axe (camera)at the ready, often coming home with nothing but the pleasure of having been out there trying?”

The funny thing is, as usual, I was in a part for town I’d never been in before (there are few left). It is a very unusual ‘hood for El Paso. In another city one would call it the “ghetto.” Here, no one thinks there is a ghetto. Being a predominantly latino city (82%), if you have a neighborhood that is lower income, the natural thing is to call it a barrio. This neighborhood was definitely “low income,” and of the three people I conversed with, two had been drinking alcohol to the point of inebriation. It is a mostly Black neighborhood, unusual in El Paso that is only 4% African-American.

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IMAGES FROM THE FSA ROAD

Okies on the road
Okies on U.S. 66, March 1937
by Dorothea Lange

 

Text  by Bruce Berman

All Commentary (definitely) Subjective

 

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) started out to show government programs to the taxpaying public, to gain support for the New Deal agriculture initiatives of the Resettlement Administration (RA). From mid 1936 to late 1939 it did that but in the doing it found itself -pushed by the hand of its Director, Roy Stryker- documenting “American Life.”

The beginning of the FSA concentrated on the devastation of people and land of the agrarian sector but, as time went on, it broadened its image-making to include the way all Americans lived and worked.

The America of the 1930s is still out there, in the backlands, far away from the eyes of urban America. In fact, if one only learned of the interior of America from the mainstream media (all situated in urban America) one could not know that the America of the 1930s FSA is ongoing, alive, and functioning.

These images are a sample from the FSA road, a road I travel often, now, in 2015, seventy nine years after the creation of the FSA and their portrayal of America.

Then as now it is typified by open space, graphic simplicity and, agriculture and a sense of order now uncommon in urban America.

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