The Photographs of Carl Mydans

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“I always had the feeling…that something was going to happen in front of me, and when it did, I wanted my camera to be there.”—Carl Mydans

“What made [Mydans] an outstanding photographer, sensitive and conscientious, was his smart ability to grasp a large event and in his bones know how to capture its essence…”—Annie Proulx on Carl Mydans

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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.

Carl Mydans (1907–2004) was working as a newspaper journalist when he picked up a second-hand camera. He immediately took to the medium, and joined the Farm Security Administration as a photographer in 1935. Although he left the agency after just sixteen months to help launch Life magazine, his ability to capture the essence of a scene in a single photograph shines through his work. He would continue to apply this skill as a career photojournalist, traveling extensively to capture momentous world events.

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