FDR Library Photographic Exhibit Recalls Depression Era America

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Young children gather around a family table in the 1930s.
Young children gather around a family table in the 1930s.

by Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.

Between 1935 and 1943, photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal agency, fanned out across America, photographing images of life during the Great Depression.  From its original mission of recording rural poverty, the FSA sent photographers to small town and urban areas, documenting life on the home front during World War II.  Among those who appeared before FSA cameras were sharecroppers, migrant laborers, miners, schoolchildren, tenement dwellers, churchgoers, factory laborers, small merchants and fair-goers.

Beginning August 12 and ending October 31, the works of the FSA’s photographers will be featured in “This Great Nation Will Endure:  Photographs of the Great Depression”—an exhibit at the O. Winston Link Museum in downtown Roanoke.  Created by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, the exhibit is being presented jointly by the FDR Library, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Link Museum.  Among the photographers whose works will be featured are Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, and Ben Shahn.

As to what the FSA had in mind when it initially sent out its photographers to record these scenes of Thirties America, “it depends on who you ask,” says Link Museum director Kimberly Parker.  “One idea is that it was to promote socialism or the New Deal.  It was intended to put people to work—artists, writers, photographers, authors. It also was a project to document the plight of the country and to present that to the public eye.  So you can call it social documentary, social change – propaganda for just documentary purposes.”

Some may wonder why an exhibit of Depression-era photographs would be put on public display at a museum that, considering O. Winston Link’s image as a railroad photographer, would seemingly be more about railroads but, Parker said, “We don’t really consider ourselves a railroad museum.  We are a museum of Winston Link’s work. He wasn’t just photographing the trains.  He was showing history, sociology, art—a time period that was going to be ending.  So it was more than just [Norfolk & Western]. His purpose was documentary as well. We regard it as capturing the social time. It is also photography … that photography needs to be shown and seen in this area.”

As the FSA exhibit is shown across the nation, the Roosevelt Library rotates it among venues.  The Link Museum sent an email query about its availability.  “It fit in within our calendar,” says Parker who adds, “We had to, of course, pass some standards to make sure that our gallery’s humidity, temperature [and] security were all up to standards. Once they were met, then the show was ours.”

In addition to the approximately 150 mainly black-and-white photographs, the exhibit will feature maps, text panels, Power Point presentations, and audio-visual displays.  Visitors will also be able to take home a publication designed and created by the FDR Library and purchase items relevant to the era in the museum gift shop.  Opening night August 12 will feature a lecture by University of Miami Professor Eugene Provenzo, who is an expert on Depression-era America.

As to whether the Depression has any relevance to present day America, Parker believes that understanding where we’ve come from helps us to understand both where and who we were.

“My grandmother was affected by the Depression.  I know the frugality that she experienced and that she brought to her life.  It’s always good to know where that came from, who we are, what shaped us as a country, what shaped our cultural history. Sometimes we have to work minimum wage in order to pay our bills.  It’s a good lesson [about] what people were willing to do in that period.”

Admission for museum members is free, non-members are five dollars.  For further information call 982-5465 or see linkmuseum.org.