John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Voice and Vision

Photography in the Farm Security Administration Project

For the Educator

Franklin D. Roosevelt, after taking office in 1932, had quickly secured a first level of acceptance for his New Deal Programs, built largely at the beginning through his charismatic personality and the appealing personal outreach of his Fireside Chats. He recognized, however, that to broaden and sustain his programs, he had to do more. In the first three years of his tenure, Roosevelt and his administration established several “marketing” plans for New Deal initiatives. In 1935, he added another that not only had far-reaching impact in that decade, but also still resonates in American social and political history. The Roosevelt Administration commissioned the Historical Division of the Farm Security Administration to undertake the challenging project of interviewing, photographing, and documenting rural scenes, farm individuals and families throughout a wide span of the nation, garnering evidence of the ravages of the Great Depression, the scars of the Dust Bowl and the impact of new farm technology on rural small town life, American farmers and farmland, and areas of the American landscape in general.

Richard Stryker, a bureaucrat in the Farm Security Division, was chosen to head the program. He was given the charge to shape a project that would particularly impress upon the American consciousness the desperate plight of rural workers and their families - sharecroppers, tenant farmers, struggling landowner farmers, the new wave of migrants - and through that exposure, promote recognition that New Deal program interventions dedicated to land reclaim, new farming techniques and farm-related arrangements could help mitigate the poverty and suffering of America’s farmers, rural small-town populations and migrants.

Stryker recruited a corps of notably recognized photographers, among them much acclaimed Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans. Stryker’s corps generated a remarkable bank of over 200,000 first-hand photographs based on themes Stryker encouraged them to photograph of every-day American life – working, going to church, on-the road migrant scenes; cooking, sewing; tending the children, etc., generating a memorable record of rural life and displaced Americans coping with being caught in the throes of the natural and man-made disasters of the 1930s. Several of these photographs, preserved in the Prints and Photograph Division of The Library of Congress (and available on the Web), are the centerpiece of the following suggested student activities.

For the Student

In 1935, to support Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal rural and farm reclaim initiatives, the Roosevelt Administration commissioned the Historical Division of the Farm Security Administration to undertake the challenging project of interviewing and photographing people and scenes throughout a wide span of the nation as a way of documenting evidence of the impact of the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and new farm technology on American farmers, rural life, and the American landscape.

Premier among the established photographers in the project was Dorothea Lange, whose work has become synonymous with historical perspectives of the hardships, poverty, despair, coping and resiliency of Americans caught in the convergence of the 1930s disasters– particularly of migrants en route to California and living in squatters’ camps while searching for employment. Lange’s most celebrated photographic subject out of her large collection is of a “Migrant Mother”– heart-rending images (six in all) of a gaunt young mother holding her baby. The following assignments suggest ways to “interpret” Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph(s) as part of the frame of reference from which Steinbeck built The Grapes of Wrath.

  • This activity focuses on “reading” the Lange photographs as illumination of “word” scenes of migrants and migrants’ experiences you will encounter in Steinbeck’s novel. Think of the photograph(s) as a puzzle solved by matching Lange’s perceptions and intent in choosing and showcasing her subject(s) with your perceptions of the photograph shaped by your knowledge of America in the 1930s.

    With the above in mind, closely analyze the visual content of Dorothea Lange’s photographs of “Migrant Mother” as you would a written text. For instance, think of the “Mother” as a protagonist. Enter in your notes a detailed word sketch of your perception of the physical environment in which the protagonist is introduced, her physical appearance, and an analysis of specific visual clues to her personal situation. Comment on what larger cultural environment you think she represents.

    Add to your notes a written summary of the following: How old do you think she is? What do you think is going through the “Mother’s” mind concerning her situation? Why do you think Lange chose to focus on her as a part of the FSA assignment?

    If the “Migrant Mother” were a protagonist in a narrative or play you had written, how would you shape her “story”? What name would you give her? What would you name her husband and baby? Where was her original home? Where is her husband? Do you think she has other children?

    Consider writing out a vignette of prose that tells the basic story you think emerges from the photograph and/or write a poem shaped around the migrant mother in the photograph(s). Share your drafts with the class.

    After completing the above assignments, access the Web for an account of the actual woman in the photograph and her real life story. Enjoy comparing your perceptions and conjectures, and those of your classmates, with the “true” background and story of the migrant mother in Lange’s photograph.

  • The centerpiece of this class activity is a panorama of some of the compelling photographs taken by Dorothea Lange and some of her colleagues on assignment in the FSA project. Join two or three classmates to collaborate on developing the following project based on the panorama of photographic images.

    Step 1:
    Select five or six photographs out of the displayed collection that the collaborative team finds particularly revealing as statements on the traumas of the 1930s. Share specific reasons for making each selection. Then, enter in your notes a brief written account of your perception of the specific situation being portrayed in each of the selections.

    Share the individual statements of the photograph “situations” and negotiate which situations would offer the best opportunity for development into a documentary film that would the need for and would help “sell” the New Deal programs as agents of reclaim and recovery.

    Step 2:
    Individually, without further collaborative sharing of ideas at this juncture of development, construct a brief conceptual plan for a documentary script that weaves together the stories of the “virtual” situations you have defined from the selected photographs. Give names to the people or person in the photographs, and position the situations in specific geographical places

    If there are no people in one or more of your selections, include a “virtual” explanation that reveals why there are no people in the place(s) photographed. Throughout the planning of your conceptual idea, work to integrate a valid historical frame of American rural life as it existed in the 1930s.

    Some suggestions to think about when shaping your “virtual” situations into a documentary based on the photographs:

    A gifted photographer does not just take a “picture” of the subject, but carefully determines a camera angle that will capture the primary emphasis or theme he or she wants to project.

    Some of the main ways a photographer achieves emphasis–while still maintaining organic unity (a vital element of any art piece), is through careful attention to spatial relationships, particularly the use of depth perception, and the consideration of variations in lighting in photographing the subject(s) or scene at hand.

    For instance, is one person showcased as the primary statement of the photograph? Or is the family situation growing out of the traumas of the 1930s showcased? Is the primary emphasis the effect on the environment and/or the land? What camera techniques has the photographer used to achieve what you perceive is his/her desired emphasis within the photograph? What main point is the photographer trying to make in each photograph concerning how a person(s) and/or scene reveal the impact of the Dust Bowl or Depression or new farm technology on rural life?

    With this “mission” of the photographer in mind, define what you want to showcase as the primary emphasis of each photograph you introduce as “evidence” in your script. Then assess whether or not the controlling purpose of your conceptual plan clearly and effectively projects the emphases you have defined in the photographs from which it was built.

    Step 3:
    Now work together as a collaborative team, using your analyses and selected photographs as “evidence”, to build a formal outline for a documentary that would fulfill the mission of the FSA Project. Again, be vigilant to stay historically accurate in framing the “virtual” situations. Share your documentary plan with your class, and if possible, develop a full script and film your documentary.



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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