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Know the West

Behind the iconic, dystopian images of the New Deal

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


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.