The Dust Bowl, The American Experience and Architectural Marketing

Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother Photograph

Ken Burns, has a film titled The Dust Bowl, which is being shown on the PBS program, the American Experience, this fall. The release had me thinking about the use of photography by built environment companies to convey a sense of place for marketing their projects and their companies.

If you’re not familiar with The Dust Bowl, it was a man made ecologic disaster that took place in the thirties affecting the Great Plains region of the United States. Farmers suffered through severe crop-killing dust storms and saw the total collapse of agrarian-based economies during the height of the Great Depression. Giant dust storms caused by draft, poor farming techniques and the introduction of the gasoline powered tractor, reduced families into crushing poverty as crops failed, and businesses closed and drove a westward migration. If you’ve read Nobel Prize winning author,  John Steinbeck’s book or seen the Academy Award winning film by Frank Capra, The Grapes of Wrath, then you have a basis for understanding the hardships felt by tenant and migrant farmers of the 1930’s. A farmer's narrative of the story of the Dust Bowl can also be heard on Woody Guthrie's song, The Great Dust Storm Disaster.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created in 1935 to help those who were affected by the stock market crash and the ensuing great depression. It lasted until 1944. For many, FSA pictures taken during the dust bowl are part of our collective history and they provide evidence that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was urgently needed. FSA photography was used to convince and encourage Americans into pressuring Congress in Washstand in the Dog run and Kitchen of Floyd Burroughs' Cabin by Walker Evans, to providing additional relief through passing FDR’s programs. It was designed specifically to aid farmers in rural and poverty-stricken areas of the United States and was helpful in many ways. Due to the passing of many in the generation that lived through this time, the FSA may be most remembered for the striking photographs of those suffering during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. FSA photographers were instructed to create conceptually driven documentary photographs that gave the public a look at the realities of life for those living in poverty-stricken areas affected by the dust bowl. These images were used to convey a sense of place and evoke an emotional response from the viewer. They were specifically used to motivate the country to action.

Roy Stryker was the head of the photography program for the FSA. Born in Kansas in 1893, Stryker had a great deal of respect for the farmers who labored so intensively. As a professor at Columbia, he taught economics and used photography to emphasize the points he was trying to make. Despite the fact he was not a photographer, Stryker went on to commission some of the most famous photographers of the period to tell the story of those suffering from the Dust Bowl. The FSA photographers included, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, John Collier, Jr., Carl Mydans and Gordon Parks. Stryker’s request was that they create a "visual encyclopedia of American life." Once the images were in Stryker’s hands, he actively promoted the use of the images using a public relations approach. It resulted in articles being picked up and written in the most popular news source publications, Life and Look magazines. 

The resulting quarter of a million images the photographers captured have become famous for the story they tell. These photographs were used to inform Americans and teach the realities of the situation to those who were not living in the affected regions. The images were taken with intent, crafted as story telling and used to promote an ideal.

The same approach to photography that was used to motivate the Americans and get the New Deal passed can be used to generate interest in your work as a built environment professional. Home is the tangible result of the American Dream. Tapping into this desire using thoughtful images that connect on an emotional level will help you create a desire in your target audience. We can learn from the FSA photographers, use their approach, techniques, and syntax to create engaging images for marketing. 

In 1986, Arthur Rothstein's book Documentary Photography was published as a guide to image making. In the appendix, he included an outline for documenting a small town that was written by Roy Stryker and provided to all of the photographers he oversaw at the FSA. Click here to download the outline "Suggestions for a Documentary Study of the Small Town in America".