When I was in elementary school, I spent many a rainy Sunday afternoon on my living room floor, paging through a book of photographs. They weren't pictures of my family, but I became so familiar with them that they almost felt like relatives.
The images were of Depression-era Americans, taken by a cadre of photographers paid by the government's Farm Security Administration. Designed to promote federal New Deal programs by humanizing the lives of the people receiving assistance, more than 160,000 photographs eloquently capture citizens in the course of their daily lives. There are the woman baking biscuits, two boys holding melons in front of a roadside stand, a man and his son fleeing an impending dust storm and perhaps the most iconic image of all, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother.
Like many who come across that photograph for the first time, I studied it over and over. What was the woman, with her pensive gaze, thinking? Why were her daughters hiding their faces? What were they doing now; were they even alive? I became so fascinated that my father finally took me to the Library of Congress so I could see more of the collection.
I remember pulling out the drawers of photographs and marveling that I could order my own copy of an image I found so special (you still can). I attribute my interest in becoming a documentary producer in large part to spending time with those frozen, yet expressive depictions of fellow Americans, whose stories are left largely up to our imagination.
This month, we have the opportunity to see a small selection of the FSA photos, ones that represent a particular slice of life: religion in America. From October 13 through November 8, the exhibit, "Picturing Faith," will be at the Friesen Galleries on the campus of Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa.
The display is curated by Colleen McDannell, the Sterling M. McMurrin professor of religious studies at the University of Utah. McDannell discovered the FSA collection when she was researching a book on "material Christianity," objects that help people reinforce their faith, such as religious icons, jewelry and hymn books. Many of those elements can be seen in the backgrounds of the government photos.
But most of those images never made it into the popular books of the FSA photos. That's not surprising, says McDannell, given the nature of the project's overriding goal: to illustrate poverty.
"Religion always complicates things," she says. "All of the sudden, you're no longer looking at the falling plaster from the ceiling and the really poor quality living conditions. You're looking at these weird religious photographs that have saints and angels."
McDannell, who describes herself as a "garden-variety agnostic," nevertheless thinks it's very important to shine a spotlight on images of faith from the Depression era. "Scholars have really ignored the religious world of the '30s and '40s, and actually that's been a problem because this was a very creative and important time for the development of the pluralistic nation that we're in now," she says.
For the exhibit, McDannell selected 45 photos from nearly 500 she researched for her book, Picturing Faith. Included is Dorothea Lange's 1938 photo, Revival Mother, a counterpoint to her Migrant Mother image of two years earlier.
The photos are divided into thematic groups, including one section entitled "Faith Without People." When she studied the FSA photographs, McDannell noticed that many only showed the exteriors of churches, or interiors with no people. She believes this was because a photographer often came upon a church when there were no services, and didn't have time to wait the rest of the week for parishioners.
But, she posits, "I think a lot of these photographers really liked having the churches without people, so that you have these pure lines and the vernacular architecture." It was religion as art.
The artistic angle may have appealed to the photographers because many were not religious, and some even seemed anti-religious. In her book, McDannell quotes a letter from photographer Marion Post to her boss, Roy Stryker. In it, Post expresses her frustration with some churchwomen she had just met:
"I can't stand their approach to problems or their unrealistic and sentimental way of handling it. After a whole day of that crap and listening to them playing Jesus, I could just plain puke!"
Yet Post and the others were still often attracted to religious themes. It is this contradiction that intrigues McDannell.
"What is it about religion that draws a disbeliever?" she says. "For many of them, this kind of religiosity was very alien. They weren't raised in environments where you would put religious pictures up in your house. And so I think it caught their eyes."
The photographs never showed non-mainstream or ecstatic religious practices. Stryker instructed his staff to stick to documenting ordinary rituals like suppertime prayers, preaching and baptisms. McDannell says this was to make sure that viewers from all over the country would be able to relate to the photos.
There was also hardly any mention of the role that faith-based institutions were playing in helping the poor. That, McDannell says, was also by design, to support the New Deal programs as an alternative to church-based aid.
"This was a period of time where all charity, almost all charity, was given by religious groups," says McDannell. "And so it was important for the government to shift people's paradigms, to make them feel it was appropriate for the government to intervene in this way."
McDannell says there are noticeable gaps in the photographic record—for instance, no photos of Asian religious practices, no documentation of the beginning of the Black Muslim movement and no images of Native American spiritual ceremonies. And yet, the collection is one that has great historical value, and given our economic times, perhaps a contemporary raison d'etre, too.
"One of my big things that I hope people get out of it is that the government at times can do smart things, can produce something useful," says McDannell.
"Here is a resource which is a treasure and which is accessible to all of us. The photographs grab you and pull you in and are profoundly compelling and fascinating. They're contagious. They are alive with feeling. And they're basically a window into a time period which is even all the more relevant today."
"Picturing Faith" is on exhibit through November 8. Professor Colleen McDannell presents a free lecture on the exhibit Thursday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. at the Friesen Galleries inside Brandt Center, 707 Fern St., Nampa. For gallery hours, call 208-467-8398.