Picturing a Nation by Martin W. Sandler

Picturing a Nation: The Great Depression’s Finest Photographers Introduce America to Itself  by Martin W. Sandler. Candlewick Press, 2021. 9781536215250

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5+

Format: Hardcover

What did you like about the book?  This thoughtful and elegant book presents the works of the Farm Security Administration’s 10 great photographers and puts their work in a readable historic context. In 1935, Rex Tugwell created the Historical Section within the Resettlement Administration (later renamed as the FSA) and appointed Roy Stryker to head the department. Although not a photographer himself, Stryker showed great taste in his hiring, putting Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein (among others) on his payroll. The team eventually produced over 200,000 photographs, which are now available to the public through the Library of Congress. Their work not only documented the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, but preserved glimpses of everyday life across the country. Sandler’s description of the FSA’s mission and legacy are concise but fascinating, presenting the innovation, creativity, and hardships faced by both the agency and its talent. 

The book is organized by geographic region, which allows Sandler to group the photos thematically and to discuss historic events and trends efficiently. Looking at the photos from the South, students will learn about segregation, sharecropping, and cotton; moving on to the Midwest allows him to spotlight the devastating impact of erosion and forced migration; the Northeast includes pictures of coal miners and farmers collecting maple syrup, as well as shots of Manhattan. The images are crisply reproduced and include both familiar black-and-white masterpieces ( Lange’s “Migrant Mother”) and hundreds of lesser known (but no less striking) works, including many in bright color. The large, square format of the book gives it a “coffee table” look and allows the pictures to take up a lot of space on the pages. After a short introductory essay for each region, Sandler is content to let the photographers do the talking and features long quotes from the artists, detailing how a particular shot came about, or providing more detail about the subjects. The book includes lengthy profiles of each of the 10 photographers (including their portraits). Source notes, a bibliography, photography credits, and an index round out the back matter.

Anything you didn’t like about it? No. I did wish Sandler had provided slightly more information about the artists at work. I did learn that Lange’s husband accompanied her and acted as an assistant; meanwhile, Marion Post Wolcott was unmarried and took risks for the sake of her art. I also wondered about Gordon Parks (who was Black) and how he handled the dangers of his assignments. He seems to have taken pictures solely of Black subjects; meanwhile, the White photographers took pictures of all races and ethnicities.

To whom would you recommend this book?  This would be a great book for students interested in photography and American history. There is so much to admire, linger over, and wonder at in this volume. Students who are embarking on a project using the FSA collection (which can be daunting) could start here for an overview of both its history and body of work. Teachers could use this for visual activator ideas for units on To Kill A Mockingbird, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or Out of the Dust.

Who should buy this book? Middle and high school libraries, public libraries

Where would you shelve it? 973.917

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: November 28, 2021

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