VISITING SCHOLAR JOSI WARD DELIVERS TWO PRESENTATIONS ON THE FSA TO WOLFSONIAN STAFF AND FIU FACULTY

This past Friday marked the conclusion of Josi Ward’s three-week stint as a Wolfsonian residential fellow. On the final day of her research fellowship, the Ph.D. candidate in the History of Architecture & Urban Development at Cornell University made a presentation to the museum staff in the afternoon to illustrate what she had found in the collection, and met with and discussed her dissertation topic with museum staff and FIU faculty from the History and English Departments faculty in the rare book and special collections library in the evening.

The fellow’s own work looks at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Resettlement and Farm Security Administration programs, specifically focusing on the FSA camps built in California to replace the shantytown and “Hoovervilles” and to improve the lives of migrant farm workers.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

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PURCHASED WITH FUNDS DONATED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.

The camps had been built on the West Coast to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of farming families driven from their homes out on the Great Plains by the greatest ecological crisis of the twentieth century: severe drought, soil erosion, and the colossal “dust storms” of the depression decade.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR COLLECTION

As the scholar noted in her talk, the crisis in America’s farm belt predated the ecological problems of the “dirty thirties” and the drought conditions and “dusters” that carried the topsoil from the land.

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GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON

It began with the economic crisis that saw a precipitous “crash” in wheat prices following an artificial boom when the government and the market encouraged greater production to meet the demands of our Allies during the First World War.

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GIFT OF HENRY S. HACKER

Homesteaders, family farmers, and speculators invested in tractors and bought and ploughed up the Great Plains, transforming the arid grasslands into wheat farms.

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But once the wheat boom went bust, much of the land was abandoned, left denuded of any sort of crop or cover, and transformed into desert dunes as high winds blew away the topsoil.

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GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON

Sponsored by the Resettlement Administration and directed by Pare Lorentz, the documentary short, The Plow That Broke the Plains did with motion pictures what FSA photographers were doing with still photography: it documented the terrible human and ecological toll of the “dust bowl” and promoted New Deal solutions.

The publication of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, and release of the Hollywood film by the same name the following year, introduced Americans to the Joad family, publicizing in fiction the plight of “Okie” migrants and “exo-dusters.”

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GIFT OF IDEAL GLADSTONE, IN MEMORY OF HER HUSBAND, JOHN

Our scholar searched the museum databases and objects collections to examine the other artistic expressions of agriculture and the “Dust Bowl” crisis of the 1930s, finding two Resettlement Administration posters I’d never before seen among the promised gifts stored at the Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Study Centre.

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT

But during her visits to our rare book library, Ms. Ward spent much of her time looking at how some of the many thousands of images taken by FSA photographers to document the migrant problem and the New Deal solution were reprinted in various government and private publications of the era. Most of us have seen the iconic image of the migrant mother taken by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) for the Resettlement Administration.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

Others may be less familiar with other of her powerful and evocative photographs.

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT

Some of her photographs take on very different meaning depending on the editorial selection policies of the publishers…

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DOROTHEA LANGE, COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

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… and on the narrative content or captions written to accompany the images.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

As noted in her talk with FIU faculty later in the evening, FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985), Russell Lee (1903-1986), Walker Evans (1903-1975) were often given very specific instructions as to what kinds of persons and what kinds of conditions to shoot. The race and ethnicity of the migrant subjects also mattered when editorial decisions were made either to reprint or omit specific photographs in government or popular publications.

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GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON

Collectively, these photographers created a vast visual record of the lives of displaced sharecroppers and tenant farm families, and other migrant agricultural laborers as they struggled to survive and to thrive in those “hard times.”

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

All of the staff here at the Wolfsonian-FIU museum and library wish Ms. Ward well as she returns to the “Great White North” to finish up her studies.

~ by "The Chief" on February 1, 2014.

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