June 25, 2023

By Arthur H. Gunther III


     What’s in a face?

     One of the good moments provided by the yin and the yang of the Internet and social media is the republishing or first-time showing of photographs made by the brilliant documentarians who worked with the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression.

     While there was debate about the intent of the New Deal FSA effort under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the many thousands of photographic images under the direction of Roy Stryker remain invaluable as to documenting rural poverty. And humanity.

     Russell Lee was one of the photogs, men and women, during the 1935-1944 gathering. In a recent Facebook post by Traces of Texas, a photograph of a young woman appears as she works in her basic-level kitchen, with Beechnut and Folgers 1lb. coffee tins reused to hold spices or whatever. The woman’s dress and sweater are threadbare, and you can spot a safety pin on it, which Facebooker Blair Craddock noted: “She has a wedding band, and several commenters on the original post at Traces said the safety pin at the waist is a folk tradition during pregnancy, meant to be protective. I’ve seen women wear a safety pin that way, and assumed they just wanted a safety pin readily available – but south Texas is full of folk traditions.”

     Blair emphasized the very human aspect of the photograph, and in doing so, the essence of Russell Lee’s work, of the other FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, all left pretty much alone to seek creativity, the only way. 

     Those photographs, much like the faces and scenes published weekly by the old Life and Look magazines, gave/give us a deep look into the souls of people whatever their circumstance.

     Search for Traces of Texas in Facebook. Scroll up beyond five or so photos to see a young girl in San Antonio, 1939. See for yourself the humanity in just one person’s face. Look at the safety pin.

     We can only imagine if we all looked more closely at each other. We might have less prejudice and fewer wars.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com