Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. (1936 Mar.) \ Walker Evans
"Roy Stryker, founder of the Farm Security Administration’s photography project, was determined to compile a visual encyclopedia of the United States in the 1930s and ’40s and preserve it for future generations.
So, while photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Russell Lee crisscrossed the country, Mr. Stryker was sending boxes of prints to Ramona Javitz, the director of the New York Public Library Picture Collection, to make sure there was a repository other than the National Archives.
“I think he had to hedge his bets,” said Beverly Brannan, a curator at the Library of Congress and the author or editor of several books on the Farm Security Administration. “It makes sense that he would send them to Ramona Javitz, so there would at least be a body of them accessible in New York City until he got assurance that they would be kept together in Washington, D.C. He was nervous, he was anxious, and I think that’s how there got to be two collections.”
In the mid-1940s, the Library of Congress Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection was assembled, comprising 175,000 negatives and 1,600 color transparencies. It quickly became the authoritative source for Mr. Stryker’s projects.
But the 41,000 prints that Mr. Stryker had sent to Ms. Javitz languished and were largely forgotten. It was assumed that all the images in the New York collection were also in Washington. Many of the prints were in the public lending library until the late 1950s. Incredibly, anyone with a library card could check out an original print of a Dorothea Lange image and put it on their wall for a while. It’s easy to imagine that some were never returned.
None of the prints Mr. Stryker had donated were cataloged until Stephen Pinson, a photography curator, came to the New York Public Library in 2005. He hired two catalogers and they discovered that some 1,000 photos in the New York collection were not among the negatives in the Library of Congress collection.
Some of the New York Public Library prints don’t seem to appear in the Library of Congress online catalog at all. Others were variations of negatives in the online catalog. And some are listed in the Library of Congress online catalog but don’t include an image, because the original negative was marked as missing. It is unclear exactly why some of the New York images are not online in the Library of Congress collection. It is known that occasionally, when Mr. Stryker considered a photo a reject, he would punch a hole through the negative.
The New York Public Library has not only digitized more than 1,000 images that do not appear in the Library of Congress online catalog, it has also made them available today on a special NYPL site. It also has another site containing the records — but no images — for all 41,000 FSA photos in their collection.
The images in New York are not all classic Farm Security Administration images. Some are alternate images before and after some of the more dramatic photos. Others are plain documents of everyday American life that also reveal the photographers’ process. The men and women who held what must have been the greatest photo jobs ever also shot some fairly mundane things.
But often, images that are not “decisive moments” are equally revealing.
Though he was a giant in American photography, Mr. Stryker was just one man with one set of eyes. People look at photographs differently now, and what is considered good composition has changed over time.
In the New York collection, a visitor can see the original prints.
“There are very few people who have actually held a vintage F.S.A. print from the time they were taken,” Mr. Pinson said. “Here, people can see them, read the back of the prints and research them.”
With the cataloging and digitizing of these distinctive images the New York Public Library’s collection of Mr. Stryker’s project is re-emerging as the important archive that he intended.
“There are a lot of good images in the F.S.A. that people don’t know because the same ones get reproduced over and over again,” Mr. Pinson said.”