These days we are saturated with electronic images: photographs, graphics, and video. Contemplating a print book of photographs can become a meditative escape. In the case of of Charlie Seemann’s recent book, Way Out West: Photographs from the Farm Security Administration 1936-1943, it is also a satisfying journey back in time.
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” part of a group of federal programs intended to counter the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Ranch-raised Roy Stryker headed the FSA’s photographic project and hired some of the country’s most respected photographers, telling them, “I want you take pictures of everything you can find of what’s happening to people.” The project resulted in over 77,500 photographs.
Folklorist Seemann, retired Executive Director of the Western Folklife Center, focuses on the works of several of the photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, John Collier Jr., and John Vachon. Rothstein is quoted about the project, “There was a feeling that you were in on something new and exiting, a missionary sense of dedication to this project, of making the world a better place to live in.”
The book begins with Bruce Kiskaddon’s “Headin’ Fer the New Deal,” a poem dedicated to President Franklin D. Roosevelt:
We’re headin’ fer the NEW DEAL now. We’ve had some awful years.
We recollect them two cent cows, and them there four cent steers.
Besides the calves that got so cheap; the wust I’ve ever seen.
It made their mothers stand and weep the day that they were weaned.
Way Out West captures a time of transition in the West, when cars, trucks, electricity, the telephone, and other developments changed forever the remote ranges in places with names like Dead Ox Flat and Pie Town and Spur. The careful selection of photographs preserves a world at once familiar and also lost to time.
One of the book’s first photographs, Russell Lee’s 1939 image titled, “Mr. Bias, former cowboy, travels around the country in a trailer. Has private income. Weslaco, Texas” is a study in personality, atmosphere, and design. The genius of the photographer pulls you into the eclectic abode, and you can nearly hear the music coming from the well-used fiddle and—though like all of these photos it is black and white—see the bright colors of everything from the wild rag to the Indian blankets to the linoleum pattern and a Kewpie doll.
Mr. Bias, former cowboy, now travels around the country in a trailer. Has
private income. Weslaco, Texas
Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, 1939 Feb., Library of Congress.
Readers have likely seen some of these iconic photos before (they are often used to accompany poems at CowboyPoetry.com). Charlie Seemann puts them in context, with brief but incisive biographies of the photographers and enlightening short descriptive pieces that include cowboys music, boots, chuck wagons, bunkhouses, washing machines, rodeo, water witching, and beyond.
Cowhand shaving. Quarter Circle ‘U’ Ranch, Montana
Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, 1939 June. Library of Congress.
In one of those pieces, “The Arrival of the Automobile,” Seemann writes about the importance of the coming of the automobile to isolated ranches and notes that, “Many ranches had automobiles before they they had indoor plumbing. One ranch wife, when asked why she wanted a car before indoor plumbing, reportedly replied, ‘You can’t go to town in a bathtub.'”
The reach of the photographs is wide: saddle shops, stock shows, ranch views, ranch work, cattle, beer parlors, cowboy portraits, gear, cooks, cowboy bands, and more.
Moreno Valley, Colfax County, New Mexico. John Mutz and George Turner,
ranchers, talking things over
Collier, John, Jr., 1913-1992, 1943 Feb. Library of Congress.
The opportunity to study high quality reproductions in an impressively designed medium-sized format is an irresistible invitation for the imagination.
The informative introduction, solid bibliography and links enhance this volume. It comes close to being the perfect gift, one which will be of interest to anyone who cares about history, photography, and the American West.
Way Out West comes from Twodot, an imprint of Glove Pequot, Rowman & Littlefield. Find more about it at the publisher and other booksellers.
Quemado, New Mexico. Bronc busting at the rodeo
Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, 1940 June. Library of Congress.