Caught Our Eyes: A Thought-Provoking Farm Security Administration Negative

Digital Conversion Technician Brittany Long added this image to our “Caught Our Eyes” sharing wall a few months ago, with a two-word comment: “Representation Matters.”

Unititled negative. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c05197

Unititled negative. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c05197

Brittany encountered the image while working on a team that is going negative by negative through a segment of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection to make new, high quality scans. She recently reflected on what struck her about this particular photo, offering a few more words:

I really liked this photo because while working on the FSA project I really hadn’t seen any photographs that would reflect the hardship of minorities during those economically challenging times. Also, if I can be frank a lot of the images were less engaging to look at until I ran across this image. One, I didn’t even know that this style of clothing dated back to the late 1930s/early 1940s. Two, I loved the confidence that was being displayed by this individual in the photo. Three, I titled it ‘Representation Matters’ because it was nice to see someone who looked like me, who looked like my people being  represented in the collection. I find it so thrilling that in the midst of one of the greatest economy tragedies we have faced as a country, this person managed to find a silver lining and this moment was captured for us to look at some 80+ years later. I actually shared this image on my Social Media and the caption read ‘No matter the year and situation we still flexing!’ Of course, flexing being used as a slang term here meaning ‘to show off, gloat, or boast.’

Digital Conversion Technician Brittany Long scanning a negative in the Prints & Photographs Division's "digital darkroom." Photo by Jan Grenci, 2019 Feb. 21.

Digital Conversion Technician Brittany Long scanning a negative in the Prints & Photographs Division’s “digital darkroom.” Photo by Jan Grenci, 2019 Feb. 21.

Brittany is primed to notice this type of striking image. She and other members of the digital team use keen visual skills and their knowledge of digital technology to carry out a project to re-scan thousands of FSA safety film negatives, now that we have digital technology sophisticated enough to capture all the visual information the negatives offer. The digital team deals with boxes full of negatives filed in their original negative number sequence. Browsing visually is the most likely way to run across this particular image. It lacks a caption because the FSA never printed and described it, so there are very few words connected with it that would turn it up in a search, although the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog offers a way to look through the negatives in order, much as Brittany did.

Brittany’s selection made me curious, though. Who took the photo and when? We can start by making deductions based on the negatives that are near it in the file and that the FSA did print and describe. For instance, this photo neighbors the image Brittany spotted:

Woman who has not yet found a place to move out of the Hinesville Army camp area working on a quilt in her smokehouse. Near Hinesville, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c05198

Woman who has not yet found a place to move out of the Hinesville Army camp area working on a quilt in her smokehouse. Near Hinesville, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c05198

Assuming the two photographs were part of the same set, the photographer was Jack Delano, working in Georgia in the spring of 1941. The captioned photo offers some intriguing clues about the circumstances of the women, and more can be gleaned by looking at the description for the group (LOT) with which the printed photo is associated. The group is titled, “Farm Security Administration relocation area for families who live in the Army’s Camp Stewart location, Hinesville, Georgia, April 1941.”

A history of Fort Stewart, a later name for the area, notes that “the lives of the people in the small town of Hinesville would forever be changed on June 1940, when Congress authorized the purchase of property near that area, which will be used as the location for the planned anti-aircraft artillery training center of the army … The large reservation would eventually be designated as Camp Steward [i.e., Stewart?] on November 1940 to honor Daniel Stewart, a general who was from Liberty County and one of the heroes during the Revolution. The name was announced on January 1941.” (“U.S. Army Bases,” by Armybases.org)

In looking so carefully at the photo she ran across, Brittany may well have detected the particular resilience of an individual who had not only weathered the Depression, but faced change and displacement as the country prepared for defense.

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3 Comments

  1. Pia
    February 23, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    I also find this individual to be a remarkable person. He seems to transcend the time in which he lived–he seems to be a modern person though he lived long ago. He is a kind of spokesman for the African-Americans who got overlooked. I see in his face wisdom born of pain and hope–hope, that he knows can vanish in an instant but which he holds on to. He speaks out by his face and by his dress. Truly unique and rather wonderful.

  2. Bill Schubart
    February 23, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Really outstanding and vital work. I think the work of the Farm Security Org and the WPA photographs are some of the most important art in our country today and should receive wider exhibition.

    Bill Schubart

    P.S. Alfred Stieglitz was my great Uncle

  3. Paul Gottlieb
    February 24, 2019 at 8:30 pm

    Ben Shahn did a whole series of shots of African-American farmworkers as part of his FSA work.
    LC-USF33-6086-M2.
    PG

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