Behind the iconic, dystopian images of the New Deal

A short-lived photography project captured rural poverty during the Great Depression.

  • Migrants packed into their automobile near Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1939.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • A couple in 1939 pictured with the tent they moved into to save on rent, near Sallisaw, Oklahoma.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • Interior of the home of a black agricultural day laborer in Wagoner County, Oklahoma, in 1939.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • Migrant girl at Tulare migrant camp in Visalia, California.

    Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress
  • A white migrant family says grace before noonday meal by the side of the road east of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, in 1939.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • A photo of their farm home in Oklahoma hangs in the living room of George Huttons, in Pie Town, New Mexico, in 1940.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • Migrants gather for a Saturday night dance at the Tulare migrant camp in Visalia, California, in 1940.

    Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress
  • The daughter of agricultural day laborer looks out the window of her shack in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, in 1939. As stated by the photographer, "Her attitude was one of utter hopelessness; she was listless and completely untouched and uninterested in any living thing."

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • A family of agricultural day laborers eats dinner after a morning spent chopping cotton near Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, in 1939.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • Drought refugees from Oklahoma that hope to work in the cotton fields camp by the roadside in 1936.

    Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
  • A child in front of mantelpiece in his home near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, in 1939.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress
  • Sunday school at Tulare migrant camp in 1940.

    Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress
  • A family that has left their home in South Texas hope to reach the Arkansas Delta for work in the cotton fields. They have no food, only three gallons of gas, and a tire in repair.

    Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
  • A man preparing to leave Oklahoma for California removes his rifle from the wall in 1939.

    Russell Lee/Library of Congress

 

James R. Swensen’s new book, Picturing Migrants, takes a long look at a legendary but short-lived photography project for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, an agency created to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression. The book is filled with iconic images — destitute mothers serving food scraps to their children, broken-down automobiles abandoned by the California highway — that illuminate the struggles of the era.

Swensen masterfully brings to life the harsh reality of life during one of America’s darkest times, coupling the story behind the photographs with a historical analysis of John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath, and revealing how the photographs helped inspire it. Author Susan Shillinglaw, formerly the director of the National Steinbeck Center, calls Swensen’s book a “fascinating and scrupulously researched account of how several FSA photographers and John Steinbeck worked in sync, ‘walking in each other’s paths.’ ”

Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and
New Deal Documentary Photography
By James R. Swensen.
272 pages, hardcover: $34.95
University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.