The Photographs of Ben Shahn

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Description

“We just took pictures that cried out to be taken.”—Ben Shahn

“No matter where he pointed his camera, Shahn could not help but find a telling detail that went beneath the surface. Sent to document the brutality of the Depression, he came home with that, plus its heart.”—Timothy Egan on Ben Shahn

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The more than 175,000 photographs in the Library of Congress’ collection from the Resettlement Administration (RA, 1935–1937), Farm Security Administration (FSA, 1937–1942) and Office of War Information (OWI, 1942–1944) provide a unique and comprehensive view of American life from 1935 to 1944. This government photography project, headed by Roy E. Stryker, employed a small group of individuals who would become some of the 20th-century’s best-known photographers, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Carl Mydans. Initially conceived to document government loans to farmers and their resettlement in suburban communities, the scope of the project expanded to create a visual record of agricultural workers in the South, Midwest and Western United States. Later, Stryker’s photographers recorded both rural and urban centres throughout the country as the nation prepared for World War II. Photographers were sent on assignment to specific regions of the country with guidelines from Stryker to “shoot everyday life;” as Ben Shahn said, “we just took pictures that cried out to be taken.” In 1941, Marion Post Wolcott was documenting migrant workers in Florida, while Jack Delano was photographing African American inmates in a Greene Country, Georgia, jail. Russell Lee sent Stryker film of a gold-mining town in Colorado in 1942, while John Vachon was documenting the farmers hit hard by the Depression in the Midwest.

Each of the volumes in this series presents 50 striking and often experimental images by an individual FSA/OWI photographer. While most are black and white negatives, colour transparencies do exist and are among the lesser-known images in the collection. These are included in select volumes to give a complete sense of the photographer’s work. In addition, each volume features a Preface by W. Ralph Eubanks, former Director of Publishing, Library of Congress. Together, the volumes recreate for the viewer a picture of life prior to World War II and communicate a foreboding sense of the changes that would follow.

Ben Shahn (1898–1969) immigrated to New York from present-day Lithuania in 1906 with his family. In 1935, he began working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) after his former roommate, photographer Walker Evans, recommended him to Roy Stryker, the head of the photography section. He worked in a variety of genres and was an exponent of Social Realism, focusing on social justice and other left-wing themes in his art.

Author biographies

Series editor Amy Pastan  is an independent editor, photo researcher, writer, and book producer based in Washington, D.C. In addition to producing volumes for the Library of Congress and other cultural institutions, she writes features for the Web and provides content for film and digital media.

Table of contents

  1. Preface by W. Ralph Eubanks, former director of publishing, Library of Congress
  2. Photographs
  3. Image credits