How can one ever come to understand a collection of 170,000 pictures? If you read my post a few weeks ago about finding unprinted Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) photographs, you probably quickly realized that the collection is complex, consisting of many interrelated parts. I hope you also got a sense of the visual and historical gems it contains. Aesthetic and intellectual rewards await those who explore it.
Every expedition needs a good guide, which is why I’m especially glad that a truly visual orientation to the FSA/OWI Collection is now available, courtesy of a Library of Congress colleague who has studied it in detail and with a documentary photographer’s eye. Carl Fleischhauer, who co-authored a book about the collection, Documenting America, provides a two-part video introduction to the collection and the ways in which it supports research.
In the first video (“About the FSA Collection”) Carl sketches the history of this famous photography project that documented American life from the Great Depression to the first years of World War II (and he does it in just a little over ten minutes!). As Carl makes clear through sample photographs from the collection: “The appeal of the photographs is the way, taken together, they offer a rich and varied look at American people and places – farmers working in their fields, family members in their homes, and folks shopping at the A&P…some are pure poetry, evoking another time and place.”
In the second video (“Learning from the FSA Collection”), Carl offers examples from the collection to illustrate how you can use the photographs and other materials to better understand the times and the process of documenting them. For instance, he highlights how looking at groups of related photographs helps us better understand the individual pictures: “The FSA photographers often approached their subjects in the manner of a photojournalist – spend some time with a subject building ‘coverage’ – producing a series of images of, say, a family, farming operation, or a community like Gee’s Bend.”
Carl’s insights about the photographs and how they came to be made have long fed my enthusiasm for the FSA/OWI Collection. I’m so pleased that now, with the help of Library of Congress colleagues from the ITS Multimedia Team and the Digital Reference Section, others can have a chance to learn about the FSA/OWI documentary effort from Carl.
- Watch the videos! (Note: To view, you must have the RealPlayer software, which is freely available via the RealPlayer site.) Don’t miss the “Library of Congress Web Sites of Interest” on the Journeys & Crossings introductory page for the videos. (Update, 2/4/14: You can also now watch the videos via the Library of Congress YouTube channel.)
- Read chapters from Documenting America that discuss selected series of photographs by some of the best-known FSA/OWI photographers.
- View the FSA/OWI Collection in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
 Documenting America, 1935-1943 edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan. Berkeley: University of California Press in association with the Library of Congress, 1988.