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Roosevelt House History

Picturing Policy The Invention of Moral and Activist Government in the New Deal

  • John Collier: Peñasco, New Mexico. January 1943

    John Collier: Peñasco, New Mexico. January 1943
    “Examination day at the Taos county clinic, a healthcare facility that benefited from government policies underwriting local facilities for people unable to afford medical care.”

  • Dorothea Lange: San Francisco, CA. January 1938

    Dorothea Lange: San Francisco, CA. January 1938
    “As unemployment benefit aid begins. A line of men inside a division office of the State employment service office, waiting to register for benefits on one of the first days the office was open. They will receive from 6 to 15 dollars per week for up to 16 weeks. Coincidental with the announcement that the federal un- employment census showed close to 10 million persons out of work, [and in line with President Roosevelt’s economic priorities,] 22 states began paying unemployment compensation.”

  • Gordon Parks: Daytona Beach, FL February 1943

    Gordon Parks: Daytona Beach, FL February 1943
    "Bethune-Cookman College: Students chopping and piling wood for thirty-five cents an hour."Bethune-Cookman students used their wages, earned under a National Youth Administration (NYA) program, to paytuition. NYA operated from 1935 to 1943 as part of the Works Progress Administration. By 1938, it served 327,000 high school and college students–both boys and girls who were paid from $6 to $40 a month for "work study" projects at their schools. Another 155,000 boys and girls from relief families were paid $10 to $25 a month for part-time work that included job training.

  • Russell Lee: Missouri, May 1938

    Russell Lee: Missouri, May 1938
    Family of a Farm Security Administration client shredding cabbage, to be used for making sauerkraut on the FSA southeastern Missouri project for the rehabilitation of farm labor. “Rural rehabilitation” was the centerpiece of the New Deal antipoverty policies. The FSA used this concept in designing efforts to improve the ways that sharecroppers, tenants, and very poor landowning farmers managed their resources.

  • Zack Shepherd, Lawyer; K. E. Kropp, Real Estate and Insurance; O. H. Whitney, MD, Carbon Hill, Alabama.

    Zack Shepherd, Lawyer; K. E. Kropp, Real Estate and Insurance; O. H. Whitney, MD, Carbon Hill, Alabama.
    Dr. Whitney says, "The New Deal is all right. We appreciate what the government has done for us here - nothing at all against it. The local men went after it, and they got it. They put in improvements that will be here for years and years. They've done wonderful things here on drainage. They've filled up all the old abandoned workings that had collapsed and filled with water, and that's gotten the mosquitoes away from here. And putting in curbs and gutters gave us good drainage."

  • Carbon Hill, Alabama, 1938

    Carbon Hill, Alabama, 1938
    In the Fall of 1938 a government photographer/interviewer asked residents of Carbon Hill, Alabama how they felt about the New Deal. The interviewer spoke to merchants, the postmaster, the filling station attendant, a lawyer, a physician, the hotel proprietress, the dry goods store owner, the beauty parlor operator, laborers, the city commissioner, the librarian, the druggist, clerics, and others. The result was a WPA photoessay. Here a “Negro miner” says, "WPA has helped the roads a lot."

  • Public Works Administration, New York City

    Public Works Administration, New York City
    Tanks equalize air pressure during the construction of the Lincoln Midtown Tunnel.

  • National Youth Administration Assistants, Leflore County Library Project Greenwood, MS May 12, 1936

    National Youth Administration Assistants, Leflore County Library Project Greenwood, MS May 12, 1936


  • Kitchen in one of the scattered labor homes built by FSA at a cost of five hundred dollars.

  • Dorothea Lange: California, November, 1938

    Dorothea Lange: California, November, 1938
    Rural electrification. San Joaquin Valley.

  • Russell Lee: Tulare Country, CA February 1942

    Russell Lee: Tulare Country, CA February 1942
    FSA (Farm Security Administration) farm workers' camp. The cooperative store.

  • Marion Post Wolcott: Natchez, MS August 1940

    Marion Post Wolcott: Natchez, MS August 1940

  • Hindman, KY January 11, 1938 National Archives

    Hindman, KY January 11, 1938 National Archives
    Works Progress Administration Pack Horse Librarians make regular calls at mountain schools where children are furnished with books for themselves and books to read to their illiterate parents and elders. The little native stone school shown here was built by the WPA in Kentucky and replaced an antiquated log schools.

  • Marjory Collins: Olney, MD November 1942

    Marjory Collins: Olney, MD November 1942
    Maryland's Democrats tried to disfranchise African Americans by law numerous times in the early decades of the twentieth century. Still, the majority of the 30% of African Americans who voted in the 1936 election went Democratic. Throughout the Depression and war years, the Maryland Democratic machine continued to try to manipulate the “Negro vote,” but African Americans emerged from the Depression, for their own reasons, as supporters of FDR and the Democratic Party. Works Progress Administration Pack Horse Librarians make regular calls at mountain schools where children are furnished with books for themselves and books to read to their illiterate parents and elders. The little native stone school shown here was built by the WPA in Kentucky and replaced an antiquated log schools.

  • Dorothea Lange: Hightstown, NJ June 1936

    Dorothea Lange: Hightstown, NJ June 1936
    “Some of the homesteaders at the Jersey homesteads, a US Resettlement administration subsistence homestead project, will work on the cooperative farm, some in the cooperative factory. This group represents wives and children of the farm group at this Jewish community.”

  • Ben Shahn: Urbana, Ohio August 1938

    Ben Shahn: Urbana, Ohio August 1938
    Relief Clients. These small-town Ohioans are waiting to receive their allotment of surplus food. President Roosevelt portrayed the Depression as a “disaster,” like a hurricane or a drought. In this way, he justified broad participation of both whites and African Americans in direct relief programs. But domestics (hired household help) and agricultural workers – including the majority of African Americans workers in the country in the 1930s – were excluded from many benefits of the Social Security Act of 1935.

  • Marjory Collins: New York, NY January 1943

    Marjory Collins: New York, NY January 1943
    Class in citizenship and English for Italians given free of charge at the Hudson Park Library on Seventh Avenue near Bleeker Street.

  • Carl Mydans: Beltsville, MD November 1938

    Carl Mydans: Beltsville, MD November 1938
    Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) boys at work at the US Department of Agriculture research center. One of the first New Deal programs created by President Roosevelt, the CCC gave work to 3 million unemployed young men. CCC crews built 3,470 fire towers, 97,000 miles of fire roads, devoted 4,235,000 man-days to fighting fires, and planted more than three billion trees. Five hundred camps were under the control of the Soil Conservation Service, successfully performing erosion control on more than twenty million acres.

The era of the Great Depression and the New Deal was a time of misery and despair for many Americans and others around the world. But it was also a time of innovation and new hope, of previously unimagined federal activism and broad experimentation; and a time in which government action helped improve the lives of millions of struggling people. The New Deal did not solve all the nation’s problems. It did not even succeed at its own most important task – ending the Great Depression; prosperity did not return until World War II created it. But the New Deal did initiate programs and policies of extraordinary imagination and, in some cases, of transformative impact on the lives of many Americans.

The sudden emergence of photography as a major force in modern society during the New Deal was the result of many things: new camera and film technologies; new publications able and eager to publish photographs; a growing appetite for pictures throughout society – and the emergence of a remarkable generation of talented photographers: Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, and many others.

Some of the most powerful photography to emerge from the Depression years was supported by the federal government. Numerous federal agencies used photography to document their activities around the country and to promote their goals, including a relatively obscure New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), working to improve the lot of impoverished farmers and farmworkers. The FSA hired a remarkable group of young photographers whose pictures of America in the 1930s have become part of the cultural legacy of the twentieth century.

The government photographers were artists, and many were also polemicists, hoping their photographs would draw public attention both to social problems and to some of the achievements of the New Deal and of the American people. They also wanted to influence politics and policy, so they did not complain when newspaper and magazine editors cropped their photographs, trying to make them more jarring and more accessible.

The work of the New Deal photographers has survived into our own time, and this impressive exhibit will help a new generation rediscover this important combination of art and politics that helped shape American culture.

~ Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of American History, Columbia University

Exhibition curated by Rickie Solinger, currently on display at Roosevelt House.

* Note: all captions in the above images are original descriptions given by the WPA photographers.