The Black Image in the New Deal

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Between 1935 and 1942, photographers for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration (FSA) captured in powerfully moving images the travail of the Great Depression and the ways of a people confronting radical social change. Those who speak of the special achievement of FSA photography usually have in mind such white icons as Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother or Walker Evans's Alabama sharecroppers. But some six thousand printed images, a tenth of FSA's total, included black figures or their dwellings. At last, Nicholas Natanson reveals both the innovative treatment of African Americans in FSA photographs and the agency's highly problematic use of these images once they had been created. While mono-dimensional treatments of blacks were common in public and private photography of the period, such FSA photographers as Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Jack Delano were well informed concerning racial problems and approached blacks in a manner that avoided stereotypes, right-wing as well as left-wing. In addition, rather than focusing exclusively on FSA-approved agency projects involving blacks - politically the safest course - they boldly addressed wider social and cultural themes. This study employs a variety of methodological tools to explore the political and administrative forces that worked against documentary coverage of particularly sensitive racial issues. Moreover, Natanson shows that those who drew on the FSA photo files for newspapers, magazines, books, and exhibitions often entirely omitted images of black people and their environment or used devices such as cropping and captioning to diminish the true range of the FSA photographers' vision.

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