Title Reviewed:
A Kentucky Album: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935–1943

Author Reviewed:
Beverly W. Brannan; David Horvath

Robert L. Reid


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 83, Issue 3, pp 282-283

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Kentucky Album: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935–1943. Edited by Beverly W. Brannan and David Horvath. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986. Pp. xi, 148. Illustrations, bibliography. $25.00.)

During the 1930s photography came of age in the United States. Photographs became the dominant form of expression in advertising; in 1932 a Gallup survey of four thousand readers ranked photographs more effective than other forms of illustration. Two popular journals based on a pictorial approach to news reporting, Life and Look, were founded. In Washington, D. C., a small federal agency was created to document programs dealing with the plight of the rural poor. Headed by Roy E. Stryker, a social scientist from Columbia University, this Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration produced the best pictorial record ever assembled. Covering virtually all aspects of American life, the FSA Collection at the Library of Congress includes approximately one hundred thousand captioned prints.

Beverly W. Brannan and David Horvath have selected and organized an outstanding set of images for their Kentucky album. A native of the Bluegrass state, Brannan is curator of the photo-graphic collection at the Library of Congress. Horvath, the compiler of an excellent guide to the Roy E. Stryker papers, holds a similar position at the University of Louisville. Their familiarity with both the pictorial and the written record is evident through-out the book.

The editors selected 127 images that portray life in Kentucky from 1935 to 1943. Most of the pictures represent activities in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky and the bluegrass section near Lexington and Louisville. The photographs are organized around eight major topics with an introductory essay for each section: education, religion, transportation, social gatherings, towns and cities, agriculture (tobacco), coal mining, and the home front. While a number of the twelve major FSA photographers, including Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Carl Mydans, are represented, the great majority of the selections were taken by Marion Post Wolcott, a free lance professional who joined the FSA staff in 1938.

None of these photographers were natives of either Kentucky or the South; they were, in the words of the editors, "just visiting." Yet their images of the daily activities of ordinary people bring back such vignettes of American life as the one-room school, a fish fry, a county fair, a baptism, a funeral, and various scenes of work and play. The power of visual images to teach and inform is evident throughout A Kentucky Album. As the Kentucky poet, Jim Wayne Miller, writes in his lyrical introduction to this volume, these photographs "help us to understand who we are and who we might yet be by showing us who—not so long ago—we were" (p. x).

Robert L. Reid, University of Southern Indiana, Evansville

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.