Hard times: Images of the Great Depression still have the power to move and astonish


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The Independent Culture

"I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished…" So declared Franklin D Roosevelt in March 1937. He wasn't the only one: during an ambitious photography project run by the US Farm Security Administration between 1935 and 1941, 12 photographers trained their lenses on America's rural communities, painfully capturing the poverty of the Great Depression.

In 1962, Edward Steichen, photographer and director at New York's Museum of Modern Art, selected more than 200 shots from the FSA archive for an exhibition entitled The Bitter Years. He arranged them in 15 themed sections, under headings such as 'Tractored Out', 'Field Workers' and 'Heroic Women', interspersed with text, including that Roosevelt quote and testimonies from those pictured.

The exhibition, frank and unflinching yet also deeply moving, was never catalogued; now a new book reproduces not only the photographs but also Steichen's careful sequencing.

The FSA project helped launch the careers of many photographers, most notably Dorothea Lange – 84 of the images were hers, reflecting her own, and Steichen's, interest in portraiture.

While The Bitter Years included haunting landscape shots of arid fields, lonely roads and makeshift living quarters, its most gut-wrenching are surely the intimate images of thin-limbed, wide-eyed and wary subjects.

'The Bitter Years' is published by Thames & Hudson, £38