Photographic Portrait
Of America: 1935-1943

Michael Lesy, Editor
The Farm Security Administration photography division was charged with taking pictures of all of America ... the farms, the cities, the markets, the streets, and most of all, the people. In it's eight years, the FSA compiled 145,000 photographs, all in black-and-white, with sixteen full-time artists out on the road, including such worthy visionaries as Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans.

The man in charge of this was Roy Stryker --- one who, Lesy tells us, was not much of a connoisseur of photographic art, but a man who was an artist at what was important then and now in Washington --- of maintaining the funding and finding ways of doing what needed to be done without bringing down the wrath of the elected officials on your shoulders.

Included in Long Time Coming are directives, letters, and notes by Stryker to and from those who were working on the FSA project. And a very strange collection of marching orders they are, too. This from 1937 to photographer Arthur Rothstein: "Where are the pictures of the corn town?... Here are special things you ought to watch for now. Raking and burning leaves. Cleaning up the garden. Getting ready for winter." Or this to Russell Lee in Corpus Christi, Texas:

    Every so often, I am brought to the realization of the ruthlessness of the camera, particularly the way we have been using it: A lot of those people whose pictures you took do not realize how they are going to look in the eyes of the smug, smart city people when these pictures are reproduced. Of course, we could turn around and put the camera on the smug, smart city people and make them look ridiculous, too.

The thrust of the narrative portion of this book is that most of the people involved --- including Stryker and his immediate superior, Rexford Tugwell --- didn't know what the hell they were supposed to be doing. Were they to show the bright side of American life? Or, as so often happened, were they to present to the world the dismal and depressed, the rootless, the poor, the hurting. We find in the work of Lange and Evans and John Vachon and Russell Lee the most appalling, fly-specked, belly-rumbling, shirt-torn, sad-eyed, bent-backed misery. At the same time, we have here sections with titles like "Amusements and Distractions," "Hometowns," "City Life" which convey the most ordinary of lives and pleasures and normalcy --- people hanging out, kids dancing in the streets, old people at fairs, the obviously well-off at the races, four grannies playing bridge in White River Junction, Vermont, a girl swinging next to the street in Woodbine, Iowa, a boy selling newspapers in Montrose, Colorado.

§     §     §

What stands out most of all in this superb volume --- over 400 stunning photographs drawn from the more than 140,000 at the Library of Congress --- is what we have lost. So soon after the close of WWII, this country began to turn strange. The great beast television quickly invaded each and every one of the towns and cities and farms portrayed here.

The easy nature of interaction between people that was so much a part of the lives of America went away. Street-life disappeared. Center city was no longer a venue for life, but the home of junkies and viciousness. Roadways were set aside solely for cars, not for foot traffic. People who had once wandered the neighborhood and the downtown were in their living rooms or kitchens, huddled around the pale, gray, brutal light out of New York, Washington, or Hollywood.

Here in this book we have a window on American life from sixty or seventy years ago and one cannot help but yearn for the way we were then, our fine innocence, the willingness to help, the desire ... no, the need to interact with others around us.

It was a quiet joy, a trust in our surroundings and the people who made up our town or city life and there was, throughout, the knowledge that things would get better, that the world had life and an intensity of purpose that was America in 1935 or 1941.

We look at photographs of boys on their bicycles or girls jumping rope and know that now they would never be allowed out of the eyesight of their parents for a moment for the streets of America are lined with fear --- every city, town, village has had its wellspring of joy poisoned by the vision of anger and greed that the media dumps, daily, over us all --- the message that one's life is in constant danger, that there is a viciousness in the house next door, down the street, in the alleys, under the shadows that block the sunlight from what used to be the civil world and dreams of America.

Our America continues to be under assault by the mavens of a brute media, one that turns our children afraid in a world that was once civil, trusting, hopeful; makes them enforced paranoiacs who see mayhem and the threat of violence in every corner. It is no longer the American Way of Life, it is The American Way of Terror.

§     §     §

Viewing these pictures from that time --- even photographs of the most poverty-stricken families --- brings a troubling surety that the forces of darkness have, indeed, taken over this country --- that the simple pleasures, the simple lives, the simple ways of a simpler time have been pushed over the cliffs, into the muck of exploitation and brutal, blatant you-gotta-buy-this.

The cover of this volume shows us a somewhat ratty but well-intentioned hometown parade --- probably Memorial Day in Tulsa, or the Fourth of July in Bakersfield. It's a poignant vision, for now those days have been usurped. We no longer pass such holidays in communality, but going to Wal-Mart for "Holiday Specials," or --- more often --- parked before the television, watching a baseball game, each of us alone in our lonely chamber, away from those who should be part of our lives --- the neighbors, the villagers, our kinsmen --- those who once shared our common world, our common life.

--- B. J. Adcock

Mauro Rosi, et al,

When you are looking at a volcano, you are not looking at a volcano. You are looking at a caldera, a shield volcano, a strato volcano, a somma volcano, or a lava dome. The latter is like one of those new sports stadiums, such as the Tacoma Dome, except that the games are played by teams of giants deep underneath the grounds. Sometimes, one of them slides into home plate, also called a Tectonic plate, and the result is a spray of lava, ash, steam, gravel, rocks, and Sunday newspapers.

The most damaging part of this is the Sunday papers, which coat everything with a fine layer of advertising supplements. The layers of this material pile up so thick that you can't even find the funnies. If you can, then the sliding plates can be counted as a mere Seismic Disturbance which is four points less.

All these events are scored on the Richler Scale, named after the author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. On this scale, true Eruptions are scored between 6.0 and 8.0 for noise, volume of gravel, and degree of lava flow. Seismic disturbances generally rate only 3.0, although sometimes they receive extra points for style.

Worst of all are the fires. Volcanoes enjoy what is called "effusive activity" --- shooting flames high in the sky. When you step out of the house to look they bonk you with rocks, stones, lava, gravel, and Classified Advertisements. On the other hand, volcanoes can also induce writers to write. This effect works particularly well when both the volcano and the writer are dormant.

For example, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania went into retirement 500,000 years ago, but that still didn't prevent it from inspiring Hemingway to write "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." In the end, as we all remember from the movie, a smirking pilot takes the writer up to the top so he can become a snowman. Hemingway himself followed this story with a long period of silence to everyone's relief. The mountain has done likewise, so far.

Sometimes volcanoes overflow with what geologists call "fantastic spastic pyroclastics" which cook up everything left in their path.

In Pompeii, Italy, pyroclastic Somma buried the whole city while the townspeople were sitting down for lunch. This happened in 79 AD, and the Pompeiians have yet to finish their fettucine con frutti di mare, and will probably never get to the pineapple upside down cake. The Napolitanos are said to take things easy, but if you ask me this is overdoing it.

You'd think with all this that volcanoes would be bad neighbors. Not so. Many towns in Central America, Iceland, and Europe are proud of their little volcanoes ("volcancitos") and use them as a tourist attraction. People in Heimaey, Iceland have set up a bar and grill where they offer fried penguin and a hot, alcoholic punch called "glögg" so people can eat and get glöggy and watch the fireworks at the same time.

Unfortunately, Heimaey experienced a sudden redevelopment project in 1973 when their volcano blew it and coated downtown with lava, ash, and fried Icelanders.

The town of Galeras in Columbia invited some volcanologists to visit its fumaroles --- the "Smoking Area" of the mountain --- in 1988. When the scientists went there to have a smoke, the little volcano of Galeras had a gas attack, and several geologists were blown to their heavenly reward.

There are some volcanoes that are not volcanoes. For example, Mr. Rainier in Washington is included in this book, but it hasn't had a blowoff since 1500, at which time there was what they called "The Electron Mudflow."

The "Electron Mudflow" was named for the then owner of the volcano and the mayor of Puyallup, Fred Electron. He not only owned the only volcano in town but he claimed he could turn it off or on at will. However, volcanoes are tricky and you don't want to be fooling with them: one day the big mudflow caught up with Fred, and to this day, there he sits in the mayor's chair with lava up to his ears.

Nothing this exciting has happened in western Washington since then, except for the great Seattle Fire of 1893 and the later invention of Microsoft Word. However, help may be on the way. Paul Allen's Vulcan Corporation, which currently owns Seattle, plans to buy Mount Rainier and drill holes in the mountain to induce another blow-off. A good pyroclastic flow would cover the vast, perpetual traffic jam on Interstate 5 discretely in ash. Then the whole region, from Seattle to Gravelly Lake/Ponders could serve as a tourist attraction, and could be renamed "Vulcania" or the Experience Paul Allen Project.

--- L. W. Milam
Jon Gallant

Route 66
Images of
Main Street

William Kaszyniski
If you ever plan to motor west,
travel my way,
take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.

It winds from Chicago to LA,
more than two thousand miles
all the way.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.

--- Words & Lyrics by Bobby Troup
Sung by Nat "King" Cole

Marshall McLuhan said that a piece of machinery, even the ugliest, most primitive machinery, if allowed to age long enough, turns to a work of art. He suggested that those items that litter lawns and storefronts --- ancient harrows, old typewriters, ancient washing machines, tattered film projectors --- will always come to be prized after (1) enough time has passed, and (2) enough of them have been junked to make the remaining ones more valuable. The proof is easily available --- the prices for cars and trucks from thirty years ago sell for hundreds of times their original prices, and are always a show-stopper if seen going down the street.

This very self-same romantic vision can take an ancient and very hoary highway system and convert it into something to delight the eye and melt the heart. For those of us who traveled Highway 66 shortly after WWII, it was a complete drudge. Endless bad hamburger joints, reprehensible hotels and motels, and impossible traffic. Since it was (mostly) two lane, and since there were too many cars and trucks, when we got --- for instance --- to the hills of Missouri or the mountains of California, one could spend many hours following a line of eighteen-wheelers. At the risk of one's life, once you worked your way to the front of the line --- just over the hill there would be another stack of trucks going just as slowly.

At night, it was a nightmare: someone would be blasting you in the eyes with their high-beams or trying to pass you from behind on an impossible hill. There would be rain and snow and sleet and hail and dust storms. And wrecks. Dozens of them. Horrible blood-on-the-windshield crumpled-up head-ons.

One could go no faster than 20 - 30 miles an hour and as soon as you left the stop-lights behind in Bloomington, Ill., you'd reach Springfield, Ill., which had even slower stop lights --- and even more of them. Then, when you thought you were getting somewhere, you'd arrive at the ragged and unlovely east side of St. Louis, and unless it was midnight of a Sunday, you could expect to spend the next three to five hours wrestling with the traffic, the stop lights, the beat-up junkers, and the cops who were always around somewhere waiting for you to try to beat that light.

The trip from Chicago to Los Angeles would be five or six or seven wearying days, and I don't recall anything romantic about it. The cars of the 30s and 40s were either too hot or too cold (inadequate heat; no air-conditioning) and devilishly dangerous. If you ever get a chance to drive a 1938 Ford or a 1946 Plymouth, you'll wonder how we survived. Hell, I wonder how we survived (my family and I took five harrowing trips on this route; it's a wonder we still speak to each other).

The cars of that era sported innumerable blind spots --- the windows were tiny and angled, and the simple safety tool of a mirror on the passenger side wasn't standard equipment. Seat belts were only available in DC-3s, and some of the doors --- cleverly --- opened to the front, so that if one happened to swing open while you were moving smartly along just outside Kingston, you could be swept out to your doom.

Now you go through Saint Looey
Joplin, Missouri,
and Oklahoma City is mighty pretty.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, New Mexico,
Flagstaff, Arizona.
Don't forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernandino.

People have forgotten how tedious it was to make the cross-country in those days because you know what Sentimentality does to Reality. I found myself pouring through the book Route 66 to see if I could remember the Townley Milk bottle lodged atop a tiny restaurant in Oklahoma City, or the Animal Reptile Kingdom in Catoosa, Oklahoma, or the Rio Pecos Ranch Truck Terminal in Amarillo, Texas, or the Wigwam Motel --- real furnished wigwams --- in Holbrook, Arizona.

It is romantic --- in retrospect --- but to me the wonders are in the occasional true works-of-art that appear here: the fine arch of the Old Trails Bridge at the Arizona/California border; the Craftsman architecture of the 66 Super Service Station in Alanreed, Texas; the sturdy Santa Fe Railroad Building in Amarillo; the classic span of the Chain of Rocks Bridge over the Mississippi River; old brick work on portions of the highway in Illinois; and the ridiculous moderne Tower Conoco and "U Drop Inn" Café in Shamrock, Texas.

Then, too, there are the occasional shots of the bare two-lane highway, stretching there before us, going off into the hazy distance, just outside of Needles, or Goffs, or Ludlow, or Amboy, or Rio Puerco. There were times... there were times that one could go into a fatigue-created ecstasy, or perhaps it was just sensory deprivation. There were times that the sheer wonder of it all swept over you ... traveling all these thousands of miles, tracing your journey on the Gulf Oil map, the wonder of the great plains passing by ("America is so huge!" you would think --- "And I've never really seen it before," you would say, not knowing that you were not seeing it at all.)

§     §     §

No one will ever guess how much we welcomed the Interstates that came to town starting in the 1950s. To be able to drive and drive and drive without a single stop light --- to go all night (and the next day) if you wanted. To have the luxury of bypassing all that mess. That mess of hamburger joints and Conoco and Esso stations, and cross-streets and detours (the detours lit at night by wavering smudge pots and men in slickers which one could barely see) and stop signs and endless rows of stop-lights and auto-wreck yards and the road-side blasted landscapes littered with the waste of those of us passing by.

Still, these memories, I confess, have turned strangely beautiful, even for me, making me long for those days before Progress when we were making progress, slowly, but, somehow, it was all right, that was life, that was the way we lived it back then, and we thought that narrow two-lane highway with the Ostrich and Alligator Farms and huge EAT signs and dead skunks and dogs and deer and the Burma-Shave signs and sides of barns painted with pictures of jackrabbits or armadillos was somehow a blessing.

One of my favorite songs from that era was "Route 66" sung by Nat Cole and the trio. I looked it up on Google and learned two things. One is that it was about as stupid a song as one can imagine. "Oklahoma City is mighty pretty!? "Don't forget Winona!?" And what exactly would constitute getting one's "kicks?" on some mindlessly designed highway.

The other is that every state now has their Route 66 Club and boosters and fans and hobby shops. My god, they even have them in France, Norway, and Japan. McLuhan is right. Let something age long enough and it can be designated "antique," be made desirable, special; lovely even. Save your washing machines, televisions, computers, refrigerators, garbage. In fifty years, they'll be worth a small fortune.

Kaszynski's book is chock-full of pictures, including fifty-five in color. His first chapter --- telling us just how highways got built and numbered in the first years of the 20th century is brief and fascinating.

Apparently he has traversed the entire route, complete with turn-offs, detours, and by-passes. He's found signs buried behind trees, burnt-out gas stations, out-of-business motels and hot-dog stands. He's interviewed families who made their living on the road before the Interstate came along and put them into retirement.

The text is exhaustive and loving. The only thing missing --- very strange for what is essentially an antique travel book --- is a map. There's not one in sight. Perhaps we should stop off at the next Good Gulf station and get a couple. They cost nothing, and each would end up being its own antique --- with folds, rips, stains from the Tucumcari Greasy Spoon Hamburger Shop and spill-over from bottles of Dr. Pepper which are an essential part of our detritus --- trash to be thrown, without a care, out the window, onto the well-littered roadside --- all a part of traveling that highway of kicks, a road of paradise leading is to the tall palm trees of the far, fair golden west.

Won't you get hip to this timely tip:
when you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.
--- R. J. Mosely

Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH

Send us an e-mail