In 1935 a fledging government agency embarked on a project to photograph Americans hit hardest by the Great Depression. Over the next eight years, the photographers of the Farm Security Administration captured nearly a quarter-million images of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South, migrant workers in California, and laborers in northern industries and urban slums.
Of the roughly one thousand FSA photographs taken in Arkansas, approximately two hundred have been selected for inclusion in this volume. Portraying workers picking cotton for five cents an hour, families evicted from homes for their connection with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and the effects of flood and drought that cruelly exacerbated the impact of economic disaster, these remarkable black-and-white images from Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, and other acclaimed photographers illustrate the extreme hardships that so many Arkansans endured throughout this era.
These powerful photographs continue to resonate, providing a glimpse of life in Arkansas that will captivate readers as they connect to a shared past.
“The devastation of the Great Depression found its greatest chroniclers in the Farm Security Administration’s matchless cohort of genius photographers, whose work in Arkansas is the focus of Patsy G. Watkins’s illuminating study. The whole all-star team—Evans, Lange, Lee, Rothstein, and Shahn—worked for a New Deal bureaucracy among the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, but images loosed in the world are understood in unpredictable ways, mixing as they do the voices and purposes (sometimes in harmony, at other times in tension) of their subjects, their makers, and their makers’ bosses. Watkins’s careful attention to this archive presents some 180 of its most compelling images in a coherently arranged and richly contextualized format. By her efforts Arkansas joins the Alabama distinguished by James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Mississippi ennobled by Eudora Welty’s One Time, One Place.”
—Robert Cochran, author of A Photographer of Note: Arkansas Artist Geleve Grice
Patsy G. Watkins is associate professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. Her research focuses on news photography and the visual design of information.
Winner, 2018 Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication from Preserve Arkansas
“Watkins frames these photographs within concise introductory sections that not only convey the history and decline of the FSA, but also locate the organization within the broader context of the Great Depression, the New Deal, Arkansas’s rural labor system, and other sociopolitical realities of the 1930s. Scholars of the era will find much that is familiar here. More general audiences receive a well-informed, well-related primer that leans on the writings of Paul Conkin, Jeannie Whayne, and other respected historians. Equally valuable, Watkins’s text explores the various methods and styles FSA photographers employed. Historians will find these sections of great use, as they introduce methods of analyzing and understanding how these artists approached their subjects, crafted messages through visual cues, and navigated the inherent power imbalances between rural Americans and representatives of the federal government (a particularly fraught relationship when photographing African-American subjects, as Watkins notes). Ben Shahn’s photographs, for example, assume additional depth when Watkins explains how he used a right-angle viewfinder to catch his subjects unaware while he faced away from them.
Strong as its textual sections are, most readers will focus on It’s All Done Gone‘s photographs. They are stunning, well chosen and crisply reproduced in sharp, greyscale tones. Like the original photographers, Watkins includes only brief captions identifying the cameraman, a general date, and, for most images, a location. The lack of precise documentation proves liberating, as it frees the reader to contemplate larger questions of race, class, power, oppression, environment, and government, rather than obsess over the minutiae of the captured moment. The subjects’ anonymity invites us to fill in their lives and imagine the world beyond the edge of the photo. By reproducing these glimpses of the past, therefore, It’s All Done Gone immerses us in the Depression era. It’s All Done Gone is not just worth reading, it is worth lingering over.”
—David Welky, Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2019
“Over eight years, nearly 250,000 photos were taken of migrant workers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers and laborers. About 1,000 are identified with Arkansans and about 800 were taken in the state. Of those, just over 180 are gathered thoughtfully, poignantly in Patsy G. Watkins’ It’s All Done Gone: Arkansas Photographs From the Farm Security Administration Collection, 1935-1943.”
—Sean Clancy, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 2018
A Note on the Photographs
ONE – Cotton
TWO – Tenants, Sharecroppers, and Rehabilitation Clients
THREE – Resettlement Farms
FOUR – Arkansas African Americans
FIVE – Houses
SIX – Food
SEVEN – Children
EIGHT – The Flood of 1937
NINE – Small Towns
ELEVEN Daring to Look at Ourselves