Material History of American Religion Project

Picturing Faith:
Religious America in Government Photography, 1935-1943

Photographs can be more than just family snapshots—they can be important evidence in the study of American religious history. Project scholar Colleen McDannell has been working with a rich collection of photographs; she talked with the project staff about her research.

Family in an FSA home, 1941Q: Tell us about the photographs you are working with. Where did they come from?

A: The photographs were taken by government photographers from 1935-1943; depending on whose count you take, there are somewhere between 160,000 and 270,000 photographs. The Library of Congress is cataloging them, but they don’t know exactly how many are there. The photographs were originally taken to support New Deal legislation. The idea was to have photographers go out and take pictures of the problems the country was having, especially in the rural areas, to motivate Congressional votes for reform. So originally they were a part of propaganda for the New Deal. But almost immediately the photographers also tried to capture life in the United States. Roy Striker, the director of the Division of Information of the Farm Security Administration, wanted to make a picture of small-town America with a compilation of these photographs. While the photographers were taking photographs to illustrate the problems of the Depression, they were also taking background photographs of small town life.

In the late 1930s the social and political situation in the U.S. began to change because of changes in Europe and Asia, with the rise of Hitler and Japanese aggression. The government wanted images that showed an America not riddled with economic problems but instead as a strong nation able to counter fascism. Consequently, the photographers were asked to take pictures of the strong America. They took pictures of cities with middle class people, healthy and smiling people, as opposed to sick and frowning people. This means that the FSA file is very diverse. It shows rural, small town America suffering under the Depression, poverty in the cities, and happy middle-class people. The religious photographs are a subset of that. The photographers were not specifically told to go out and take pictures of religious America, but they were told to take pictures of American culture. As part of that mission there were pictures of people going to church, people having church suppers, and people attending synagogues.

Q: Does the way religion is treated as a subject in the photographs change over those years?

A: In the early years, religion appears almost by accident. Because you are taking pictures of Americans, especially pictures inside their homes, you see a lot of religious prints on the walls, statues, home altars, and shrines. The photographers didn’t intend to take a picture of someone’s religious activities, but because people are religious, it was almost impossible for the photographers to ignore religious life. In the later years, in the late 30’s and early 40’s, Striker encouraged the photographers to take photoessays, so in the later years you get a much more developed sense of religious behavior. For instance, they took photographs of farming Jews in Connecticut, so there are pictures of them in their factories, in synagogues, with their cows, in the barns; a whole variety of photographs. You have a more complete view of a community of people in which religion is an important part.

The Photographers

Q: How does the depiction of religion serve the political agenda of the photographers?

A: In the early years, during the Depression, religion was always a problem for them. The photographers needed pictures of utterly poor people who seemed to be hopeless charity cases. But if you showed somebody who was religious, you introduced an element of agency into their lives. Religion ties people into belief systems, worship activities that give them a certain amount of personal power and control. Religion works against showing them as being utterly poor and without any hope, so there had to be a very careful use of religion in those early years. In the later years, however, when they were creating pictures as war propaganda, they presented religion because religion supposedly provided social stability and social harmony. Most importantly, it showed that in America we have freedom to worship, one of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. This was something that the soldiers were overseas fighting for—Hitler doesn’t respect people’s religious beliefs but here in America we do. The photographs from this period show people being religious, having different rituals, but not impinging on anyone else’s freedom to worship. In these pictures religion did not provoke any sort of conflict in the country.

Q: How did the religious outlook of the photographers affect their depiction of religious life?

A: It varied. For instance, Ben Shahn, who became a very important artist, was Jewish and was never particularly interested in going inside Christian churches. Striker would send him scripts saying: "take pictures of people going into and out of church," and Shahn would literally do that—he took pictures of people going into and out of church. On the other hand, Jack Delano, another Jewish photographer, took a very interesting series of photographs of African-American church life in the South, and of observant Jews in Connecticut. John Collier, who had no religious upbringing at all, took an insightful series of photographs of Catholics in New Mexico. Something about their own cultural interests drew them into the religious world. On the other hand other photographers like Walker Evans were not particularly interested in religious behavior as a cultural expression. Evans was more interested in the artistic expression of religious form.

Most of the FSA photographers were not religious. This is one of the interesting things about the project—you have profoundly secular people taking profoundly interesting photographs of religious behavior. I think it challenges us to ask what is it that is needed to produce intense photographs of religious life. In the case of someone like Dorothea Lange, you need to be an excellent artist. For instance, the series of photographs that she took of the Salvation Army in California are very intense photographs of the religious activities, instead of the charity activities, of the Salvation Army. I think that she captures something of the evangelical nature of the Salvation Army which has sometimes been overlooked. Her photographs show you don’t have to be religious in order to show religion in a powerful way.

Q: How do these photographs change your thinking about American religious history or your own academic field?

A: In general, the photographs push me even farther in the direction I was already going. Maybe that’s why I like working with them. They emphasize the importance of religious practice and the importance of the material world. They also suggest that we should never make easy assumptions about people’s religious beliefs. People are incredibly innovative in how they express religion and what they use in their religious lives in order to create, shape, and maintain their religious world. Often times there are surprises in the photographs. For instance, there is a black Pentecostal church that has paintings of the Sacred Heart. Since this was a Church of God in Christ church we might think it shouldn’t have this kind of art—but in fact the photographs shows that it does. This challenges our assumptions about art and religion. Our nice clear categories are often times more smudged than we’d like as scholars to have them.

Art and Photography

Priest blessing a Catholic homeQ: To what degree are these photographs art and to what degree are they journalism?

A: I think they are both. Like I said, they smudge the lines. In the case of these photographers it is hard to make a clear distinction between the documentary nature and the artistic nature of the project. Within every photographer there is an artist trying to get out. Even those of us who make snapshots of our weddings or vacations, we have a sense that we want to make beautiful pictures. Some of these photographers—like Dorothea Lange—went on and had careers in art photography, yet she also wanted to show the problems of the migration of people from the South into California, the problems with farming. She was very concerned about the social welfare of the nation. But she also spent a considerable amount of time posing poor people to make the pictures that she was producing as effective as possible; effective both in an artistic sense but also in a propagandistic sense—she was trying to pull on people’s heartstrings in a certain way. I think if you are going to have great journalistic or documentary photography you also have to have great art at the same time. Sometimes that art project gets in the way of being a good journalist and several of the photographers were not very good anthropologists. They got the names of the churches wrong, they didn’t know where they were at certain times, and they didn’t contextualize the photographs they took. So we don’t know very much about the communities that produced the particularly beautiful church in the photograph. At times the art project scuttles the documentary project. That was a problem for Stryker at the time.

Q: How about things that never got documented? Are there photographic lacunae, things about religious life that never or rarely appear in photographs?

A: Not surprisingly, the most important religious tradition in the United States that was not documented was the Native American tradition--for a variety of reasons. By the 1940’s, the Native American communities were finally getting a little bit of control over their communities and they basically said, we don’t want photographers to come here. The political situation on reservations was also difficult because there were a variety of governmental agencies that were in charge of Native Americans; it was difficult to get permission to go into these communities. It wasn’t clear who had the authority to decide who could photograph what. So, Native American religions are entirely absent from the files. There are other types of religious behavior that aren’t in the files. You don’t see women’s charitable organizations. You don’t see photographs of religious activities that would challenge the state or would provide an alternative to the state-supported social welfare system. There is not very much about American Judaism, primarily because the mission of the project was to capture rural life. There are pictures of Jewish farmers in Connecticut and New Jersey, but as you can imagine, that was a peculiar representation of Judaism of the period.

Q: There are not a lot of pictures of religious soup kitchens?

A: Exactly. There is a series of photographs of city missions—one in Iowa and one in Virginia. In both of these sets of photographs, you see that the photographer is not very happy about what is going on. The written documentation shows that he thought that activities of this city mission were patronizing, and that the minister didn’t take seriously the people that he was trying to minister to. They are a really pathetic series of photographs.

Q: How did you first get interested in this material?

A: One of the criticisms of my first book, The Christian Home in Victorian America (Yale University Press, 1986), was, all of this is well and good about family worship, but this book is too focused on prescriptive literature. How do we know that real people had family worship? How do we know that real people read the Bible at home? I knew that real people did this but I wasn’t sure how to prove it. In The Christian Home, there are pictures of an Angelus clock advertised in newspapers, but I didn’t have a lot of actual photographic evidence. In writing my second book, Material Christianity, I tried to illustrate where these objects actually appeared in real people’s lives. Just through mere coincidence, in a book on immigration I ran across a photograph of a priest blessing Easter food in a Polish home. In the background of this family’s living room was an elaborate shrine with the Infant of Prague, candles, and a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was a very compelling photograph. I discovered that this was a photograph in the collection at the Library of Congress. So one time when I was in Washington, I went to the Library of Congress to the Prints and Photographs division to look for this one photograph. I found filing cabinet after filing cabinet of photographs; and I started looking through these photographs and found that there were hundreds of interiors with religious prints and shrines and statues. The very first photograph in Material Christianity is one of the Farm Security Administration photographs. Then I became interested in the file itself. Who took these photographs? Why did they take them? What was the process? Why did all of these government photographers take all of these pictures during this period? What can it help us learn about both the photographic process and perhaps more importantly religion in the thirties and forties?

Q: What perspectives do you need to use photographs as documentary evidence? Is there special knowledge that makes for a better understanding of them as a source?

A: I think it is very complicated, because you have to know something about what’s going on inside the photograph and something which is going on outside the photograph. You need to know a whole lot of information about the photographic project itself—so you need to know about the agency and its purpose and the people pushing the photographers in certain directions. You also have to know something about prevailing art styles, because the photographers are seeing the world through a particular visual lens that they are carrying around in their heads—their sense of what is beautiful. You have to know something about the photographers themselves, their worldview, and their personal biographies. Then on the other side, I think it is important to know something about the people who are being photographed. This is something that I do that other people who are interpreting photographs do not do. I am trying to go back to the communities that were photographed to learn something about what was being photographed. This has become an enjoyable part of the project—to go to the communities that were photographed, to bring the photographs back to people, elders in the community, to ask "what’s going on here?," "what’s happening?," "do you remember this time?" Surprisingly enough, many of these communities are still there, and people remember these things; they can help me understand what is in the photographs. That’s been very exciting.

The Exhibit

Q: You’ve got an exhibit of some of these photographs touring the country. What can you tell us about that?

A: The exhibition is a series of forty-five prints that illustrate several different themes. Each of the themes has an informative panel that discusses what I thought the photographer was trying to present. The photographs are hung with captions that also try to place the photograph in its historic context. This helps us understand what’s in the image. Too often with art exhibits we are somehow supposed to know what’s in the picture by just looking at it with no contextual information. We need to at least be told some basics and then led through the caption to raise some questions about the photographs. So far, the exhibition has received very positive reactions. I think that the photographs are very compelling, and when you add the text, it creates an exciting educational experience. People learn a little bit about different religions and also a little about the 1930’s and 1940’s. I think the exhibition is a wonderful combination of beautiful artistic expression and information on religion and history.

Q: As a historian, how is putting an exhibit together different from writing a book?

A: It’s very challenging. When you write a book, you seemingly have endless amounts of pages that you can fill up, so you can develop the ideas to the level you want to. Doing an exhibit is like writing Haiku. You must take your very complicated nuanced ideas and try saying them in three lines—three lines that will be read by many, many people. So you have to be exceedingly clear. You have to be compelling in your writing. You have to keep people moving from one photograph to another; that’s a very different writing process from writing books. It’s a literary process that many of us historians are not used to. Also, putting the exhibit together is a challenge, because it draws on skills that museum curators have but that we, as teachers and researchers, don’t have. So we had problems—what kind of paper do we use to mount the captions? Where do we get the crates to ship the materials? These were complicated issues, and also very frightening because you know that if you don’t build the crates properly your beautiful photographs will be disintegrating someplace in a post office. It was a fascinating and exciting project. I think we scholars are going to be getting involved with more and more with public history.

The fireplace as a home altar, 1938Q: How might this experience change the way you teach? Might the experience of making a visual exhibit have an impact on what you do in the classroom?

A: I have always used a large number of slides in my teaching, and I’m always very visually oriented. But, I think that this helps me refine my ideas down to their essence. It really forces you to cut out a lot of superfluous material and get right to the point. I’m sure students appreciate that brevity as well. But sometimes with students you have to say the same thing four different ways so that they can understand it. If they don’t understand it the first two times, then they may catch it on the third or fourth time. So in other ways, caption writing is just the opposite from teaching.

Q: If an institution, a library, school, college wanted to host your exhibition, what would it take?

A: You would e-mail or write me or call me and we would find a time in the next year or two for the exhibition to come to your institution. There is an organizational fee that must be paid. The institution also pays to ship the boxes (4 crates) to the next institution. Many schools have actually gotten money to support the exhibition from their state humanities councils. The photographs then arrive. You need to have a secure place to mount them. This can be done by either mounting them on pre-existing walls in a hallway or room that has some basic security or by building moveable walls. Carpenters can easily put together such walls in a library entrance area or meeting rooms. Typically for two months the exhibition is at your institution. Then you have the shippers pick it up and it goes to the next venue.

The Field

Q: What advice would you have for other historians and interpreters of American religion hoping to work with visual materials, particularly with photographs?

A: All of this is a much more complicated process than working with books. For instance, the whole process of just getting the photographs can be difficult. I just got a letter from the Library of Congress which said that a large number of these Farm Security Administration photographs are currently out of circulation because the nitrate in the film is making the negatives deteriorate. You have to have a lot more patience, time, and money because you have to travel to the places where the museums have your material culture; that’s a lot different from getting an inter-library loan book.

Q: Why is it worth it?

A: There is nothing more exciting than to bring alive real people who have done something thirty, forty, fifty or sixty, years ago. Visual materials add to our scholarly interpretation of what’s happening. It opens up a realm of popular religious activities and beliefs that otherwise would be closed to us. This is a way for us to understand our own contemporary society but also to understand the societies of previous generations.

Q: The twentieth century, by giving us so many more media with which by which to look at the past, has changed what historians do. We have different sources for the study of twentieth century American religion than we do for the nineteenth century.

A: That’s definitely the case. Again, it’s a challenge and it’s blessing at the same time. It is exciting but also very frightening to think of trying to bring together all of that material and trying to make sense out of it. Therefore you can’t make any easy assumptions and you can’t make too many big generalizations because the material itself is so large you cannot know all of the source material. You have to be humble when you make your assumptions, because the next year somebody might bring up a whole other set of evidence which you hadn’t even thought existed.

Q: What does that suggest to archivists, librarians, and antiquarians who are collecting materials from the present?

A: The whole question is what to save, who saves what, and how to preserve things. The Library of Congress photographs that I am working on were almost destroyed back in the forties. There were people in the government, after the project was over, who basically said we just wasted three or four million dollars on these dumb photographs and now you want us to spend more money saving them? They wanted to get rid of the whole thing, to sell it off. If the government doesn’t take an active role in preserving these things then we are going to be losing part of our heritage. We have to think seriously how to preserve these materials.

Colleen McDannell holds the Sterling McMurrin Chair in Religious Studies and is Professor of History at the University of Utah. Her publications include Material Christianity: Popular Culture and Religion in America (Yale University Press, 1995) and The Christian Home in Victorian America: 1840-1900 (Indiana University Press, 1986). She was interviewed by project director James Hudnut-Beumler and associate director Daniel Sack.

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