In the 1930s, the U.S. government famously sent photographers across the country to document on film the need for federal assistance in rural areas. Dorothea Lange’s well-known image Migrant Mother came from this effort, along with thousands of other photographs. Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott contributed some of those other images, many equally compelling. As primary photographers for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the state of Louisiana, the three took more than 2,600 photographs, recording the modest homes, family gatherings, and working lives of citizens across the state. In Images of Depression-Era Louisiana, Bryan Giemza and Maria Hebert-Leiter curate more than 150 of those photographs, offering a riveting collection that captures this pivotal time in Louisiana’s history.
The book’s stunning photo gallery, with original captions, provides a moving, visual tour of Louisiana during a period of economic struggle and transition. Organized by photographer, parish, and date, the revealing images reflect an era when extreme poverty exacerbated the divide between classes and races. Scenes of agricultural and rural communities— families in clapboard houses, sugarcane cutters in the field, and trappers navigating bayous—as well as cityscapes of New Orleans’s bustling markets, busy docks, and peaceful Jackson Square demonstrate the scope of the photographers’ work and the diversity of conditions and occupations they found.
Giemza and Hebert-Leiter trace the genesis of the FSA Collection and its role in promoting the documentary style of picture-taking, and explore the motivations and methods of the collection’s head, Roy E. Stryker. They sketch the biographies, techniques, and perspectives of Shahn, Lee, and Wolcott, explaining how the photographers operated in Louisiana from their first experiences to their last days in the state. Letters and other archival documents further illuminate the three artists’ impressions of Louisiana, its people, and its traditions.
Bryan Giemza is director of the University of North Carolina Libraries Southern Historical Collection. He is the author of Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South.
Originally from Thibodaux, Louisiana, Maria Hebert-Leiter teaches at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Becoming Cajun, Becoming American: The Acadian in American Literature from Longfellow to James Lee Burke.