Documenting the Face of America

Last night on my local PBS station, WQED, I stumbled upon the documentary “Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers” (written & directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler). What drew me in immediately was the number of photographs being shown in this program. In the words of the Library of Congress, these photographs are “a landmark in the history of documentary photography”, and it was great to see so many of them presented on-screen while learning about the political and social environment in which they were created.

I took a photographic archives course over the summer, and was impressed by how all the archives students seemed very familiar with the FSA/OWI story, right down to details about how certain photographs had been modified, damaged, preserved etc. I guess it’s understandable that archives students would know more about this than library students, since this collection is probably the type of thing aspiring photo archivists dream about. This documentary was especially nice to watch as a librarian, because it left the viewer with a strong impression of the importance of visual history, and libraries’ & archives’ role in preserving/providing access to that history. It also highlighted Stryker’s insistence that “the file” be kept together when the project was ending; scattering it would greatly reduce its value as documentary evidence of the period, and the strength of its social & political statement. The point was made, on multiple occasions, that many politicians and members of the general public disapproved of the FSA/OWI photography project, and thought the photographs were “stupid”. How fortunate that the Library of Congress was (and has been) able to provide such a good home for these far from “stupid” materials. It’s nice to see such a thoughtful documentary film emphasize the contributions of libraries/archives and the people who care for them.

A review is available here.

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