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“Don’t Let Them Break Your Camera”

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Entrance to Imperial Valley, Scene of "Winning of Barbara Worth", California., Digital ID G89F368_001F, New York Public LibraryEntrance to Imperial ValleyThe NYPL Photography Collection has one of the largest collections of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs outside of the Library of Congress. I’m not sure what it is about these images—though given the economic times I’d say they are due for a resurgence—but they continue be some of the most popular and to present some of the most iconic images in American history: Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Okies newly arrived to their hardscrabble yet hopeful life in the interior valleys of California being perhaps the most prominent example.

The history, plight, and societal conditions of California agricultural workers (not farmers) has been told many times over. It is not a happy story, but it is story of necessity and one that is generally forgotten as the state has been transformed into two regional metropolitan hubs. It is a nice addition, then, to find a book like Richard Steven Street’s Everyone Had Cameras. Street chronicles the photographic documentation & representation of farm workers from grape-pickers on Leland Stanford’s estate in the northern Sacramento Valley in the late 19th century to the present day migrant workers who pick strawberries in Ventura County.

A little later this year, Powerhouse Books—an independent publisher in Brooklyn—will be bringing out a volume of William T. Vollmann’s photographs of the Imperial Valley. Vollmann is well known for blending fictional and non-fictional portrayals of marginal figures in American history & society. He will follow up this photographic work with a 1300-page historical account of the Valley. Perhaps not summer reading, but it’ll get you through next winter.

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Also, be sure to check out some of the NYPL's FSA images on the Flickr Commons...

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