Cover image for Times of Sorrow and Hope: Documenting Everyday Life in Pennsylvania During the Depression and World War II: A Photographic Record By Allen Cohen and Ronald Filippelli

Times of Sorrow and Hope

Documenting Everyday Life in Pennsylvania During the Depression and World War II: A Photographic Record

Allen Cohen, and Ronald Filippelli

288 pages
11" × 9.25"
150 b&w illustrations

Keystone Books

Times of Sorrow and Hope

Documenting Everyday Life in Pennsylvania During the Depression and World War II: A Photographic Record

Allen Cohen, and Ronald Filippelli

“These selections are a reflection of the sensitive and historically significant work done in the Commonwealth, an enduring record of a desperate time in America.”


  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects

To visit a gallery of some of the photographs in the book, click here.

Between 1935 and 1946 a group of photographers working for the federal government fanned out across the country to record American life in pictures. Among them were some of the great documentary photographers in American history—including Marjory Collins, Jack Delano, Sheldon Dick, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott. This massive photographic project, carried out primarily under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Office of War Information (OWI) and later preserved at the Library of Congress, was unrivaled in scope: no comparable attempt to document life in this country has ever been made. Times of Sorrow and Hope is devoted to the Pennsylvania photographs in the FSA-OWI collection. It is both a book and an online catalog.

The Times of Sorrow and Hope book features 150 selected images from the approximately 6,000 Pennsylvania photographs, and they cover themes ranging from coal mining, steelworkers, and women in wartime industries to cities and small towns, farm life, family life, and life among the Amish and Mennonites. The book also includes an essay introducing the FSA-OWI project, an introduction to the catalog of the entire collection of Pennsylvania photographs, and a historical essay on Pennsylvania during the Great Depression and World War II.

The website that accompanies this volume offers a complete catalog of all the FSA-OWI photos taken in the state as well as detailed descriptions and guides to the images. The catalog is keyed to the holdings of the Library of Congress, which houses the fullest collection of FSA-OWI photographs. The Times of Sorrow and Hope website, sponsored by the Penn State University Libraries, can be found at

Times of Sorrow and Hope provides a unique, comprehensive visual and written record of Pennsylvania history as the state struggled through one of its darkest periods and confronted new economic, political, and social challenges.

“These selections are a reflection of the sensitive and historically significant work done in the Commonwealth, an enduring record of a desperate time in America.”
“This book of black-and-white pictures by some of the twentieth century’s most talented photographers recaptures the authentic look and feel of the Depression and the home front during World War II. As an added bonus, these are Pennsylvanian scenes and people.”
“From the gaunt faces of black children in an Aliquippa slum to the grubby faces of coal miners in Pittsburgh, Times of Sorrow and Hope captures in moving photographs the faces and emotions of the years of the Great Depression and early World War II in Pennsylvania.”
“Still much intrigued by American expressionism, I was happy to also have this book along.”
“A valuable pictorial study and resource for Pennsylvania history, but it raises issues about reading documentary photographs—what can be seen and interpreted with or without captions. Extended captions: biographical notes.”
“This wonderful book is beautifully produced on quality paper stock. The printing captures the broad range of tones in black and white photography with an appealing fidelity. The fine, semi-matte surface of the book’s pages allows for the inks to render the images with great accuracy. This can be seen mostly in the success of rendering the shadow details. The layout and design of the book are well done. The photographs are presented in a consistent size from page to page with plenty of white space around them to set them off, as if they were framed for an exhibit.”

Allen Cohen is a retired librarian from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a bibliographer, and a film historian whose most recent book is a co-authored work, John Huston: A Guide to References and Resources (1997).

Ronald L. Filippelli is Professor of Labor Studies and Industrial Relations as well as the Associate Dean for Administration and Undergraduate Studies at Penn State. His most recent book is a co-authored work, Cold War in the Working Class: The Rise and Decline of the United Electrical Workers (1995), and he has been a frequent reviewer for The International Journal of the History of Photography.


Foreword by Miles Orvel

Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Pennsylvania from Depression to War

2. The FSA-OWI Photographic Project

Photographs from Pennsylvania


Town and City

At Home

At Leisure

On the Move

On the Land

The Plain People



The Westmoreland Project

Patriotic Activity

The War at Home

About the Photographers

3. Introduction to the Times of Sorrow and Hope On-line Catalog

4. Guides to the Times of Sorrow and Hope On-line Catalog

Appendix: FSA-OWI Photographs in This Book


Resources and Selected Bibliography



The documentary photography project initiated by the Farm Security Administration in 1935 was an unprecedented experiment in the history of photography, and it remains a monument to a collective effort that will never be equaled—the recording of an entire nation, from the city and town to the farm, from the home to the factory, from work to leisure, from school to church, from the baseball field to the movies. Looking back on this effort now, well more than sixty years later, we can appreciate the full scope of the project and see more clearly what was at stake and how it related to the history and tradition of documentary photography.

The camera has, from the beginning, recorded the actuality of life, including urban and rural social conditions. Such observations, however, were accidental, picked up by the eye of the camera as it sought to record and memorialize everyday life. The deliberate and programmatic recording of social conditions would wait until the 1880s and 1890s, when Jacob Riis undertook a more systematic exposure of conditions in the tenements and slums of the Lower East Side of New York City. Riis was followed by Lewis Hine shortly after the turn of the last century; Hine photographed immigrants at Ellis Island and factory workers in Pittsburgh as well as the lower strata of urban society in Boston and New York. As Alan Trachtenberg has argued, Hine’s work for The Survey, a Progressive magazine, "reflected a new idea in the reform movement," a shift away from individual pauperism to the more systemic problems (e.g., child labor) "which required legislative intervention and professional expertise." Even the magazine’s name—The Survey—suggested this more synoptic approach, confirming Allan Sekula’s observation that the archive, the effort to construct a complete catalog or description, became "the dominant institutional basis for photographic meaning" around the turn of the twentieth century.

By the 1920s, though, the leading edge of the Progressive movement had become blunted in the face of growing anti-immigrant sentiment after World War I and a chauvinistic politics that wanted to exclude foreign elements. Hine, with his liberal attitudes and documentary strategies, was marginalized, while the more self-consciously avant-garde modernist photographers—influenced by the innovative European art movements emanating from Germany and France—created a new space for photography within the art world. Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand were in the ascendant now, and the mood of photography, influenced by the strong example of Cubism, was to cultivate form for its own sake. Transforming the everyday objects of the immediate urban environment, Stieglitz, Strand, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Edward Weston constructed an abstract photography that favored the fragment, the close-up, the studious meditation on the thing itself. The modernists were also exalting photography as the art of the moment, of freezing time in ways that provided exciting juxtapositions, elegant formal matches, and the discovery of form in the natural world.

The stock-market crash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed it placed everything in a new light. Silent factories, growing unemployment, and breadlines created widespread fear as the Depression continued and Americans began to look for apocalyptic solutions. There was no apocalypse, but the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 heralded a gradual restoration of confidence in the American system of government. Roosevelt brought with him a host of new faces, new talents, and new ideas, among them the creation of federal agencies that would employ the unemployed—including, to everyone’s surprise, artists, writers, musicians, performers, editors, and photographers. The government also went into the business of providing information about its own programs, a move designed to promote support for farm subsidies, land conservation, dam control, and a host of other beneficial projects. (Today we would call this effort propaganda, but in the 1930s the term did not have its negative post–World War II connotation.) Leading that effort was the Farm Security Administration, which saw the great potential that visual portrayals—through photography and film—might have. At the head of the FSA’s historical division was the pivotal figure of the 1930s documentary movement, Roy Stryker, who had been brought to the agency by Rexford Tugwell, Roosevelt’s close advisor.

Stryker worked with about a dozen photographers at any given time, assigning them to different regions across the United States. They went equipped with background information and "shooting scripts" that gave detailed instructions on what material was needed. The resulting images were made available, free of charge, to news magazines and newspapers and for local exhibitions. The FSA archive—about 164,000 black-and-white images and about 1,600 color slides—may be the greatest collection in photographic history.

The ostensible motive of the FSA photographers was to gather images relating to the agricultural policies of the government, but in practice, Stryker and his crew quickly developed a much broader conception of their documentary project. They set out to render a sociological portrait of American life, across classes, in urban and rural areas—a portrait guided consciously by the sociological approach of Robert Lynd, whose Middletown had been a pioneering ethnography of an American city. The FSA’s ambitious aims were captured in an interoffice memo written by John Vachon, who (with Stryker’s encouragement) was starting out as a photographer while working as the archivist of the FSA files:


The statement that photography is the medium best suited to true documentation can no longer be challenged. Still photography, not cinematic, is the most impersonal and truthful device yet perfected for factual recording. It is able to include the widest range of subject matter and employ the least plastic materials of all the arts. In still photography the artist’s material is one simple phenomenon,—the splash of light on a sensitized emulsion.

The camera, then, intelligently used, should leave for the future a very living document of our age, of what people of today look like, of what they do and build. It should be a monumental document comparable to the tombs of Egyptian Pharoahs [sic], or to the Greek Temples, but far more accurate.

Such a body of work is the well organized, intelligently selected and edited file of photographs. The most important, perhaps the only important file of this sort is the FSA collection in Washington, D.C.

<end ext>

Eschewing in this memorandum any overt political purpose, Vachon argued for a more lofty, comprehensive perspective: "While accepting limits of detail, the documentary file should accept no general limits. It should not portray exclusively either the rural scene or the urban scene, lower classes or upper classes. It should be like the philosopher, who without a profound knowledge of all special sciences, yet includes and understands them all." Vachon’s youthful memo expresses some of the excitement and sense of purpose that infused the FSA photographers as they fanned out across the country in search of pictures that would definitively portray America’s present conditions.

The young photographers Stryker gathered around him were to revive the dormant tradition of documentary photography that Hine had championed (they knew Hine’s work, as did Stryker, of course). They had also been schooled, however, in the aesthetics of modernism. Though they remained adamantly committed to documentary, this younger generation of photographers—Dorothea Lange and Jack Delano, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon and Marjory Collins—was stylistically more self-conscious than the relatively straightforward Riis and Hine. Only Walker Evans, in this group, had a notable prior reputation. Evans had begun his career in the late twenties, and his early work—close-ups of commercial signs, fragments of buildings, architectural studies, street snapshots—revealed his mastery of the modernist idiom of abstraction as well as his interest in capturing the flow of urban life. Bringing these resources into his work for Stryker, Evans produced images that had an elegance of composition and technical brilliance. He favored architectural images and landscapes, his eye alert for formal resonances—repetitions, contrasts—within the image and for the odd detail of signage or furnishings. He excelled as well in the portrait.

Two of Evans’s best-known works are part of the Pennsylvania FSA archive and are included in the present volume. "Johnstown housing" (December 1935) and "Bethlehem graveyard and steel mill" (November 1935), both taken with Evans’s 8 x 10 view camera with a long depth of field, fill the frame up to the edges, with everything in focus, from the foreground to the background. The result is a radical foreshortening of the picture plane and the creation of patterns through the juxtaposition of objects in space, objects brought close together in the photograph. The pattern created by the houses in "Johnstown housing" is straightforward enough; in "Bethlehem graveyard and steel mill," however, the juxtaposition of the cemetery cross in the foreground and the workers’ housing in the middle ground against the steel mills in the background gives to the scene a compressed symbolic quality, as if to sum up the living and dying of this town within the ruling structure of the steel industry.

Two other well-known Evans images in the Pennsylvania FSA archive also appeared, in more severely cropped versions, in Evans’s classic American Photographs (1938), and they are reproduced here: "Legionnaire, Bethlehem" (November 1935) and "Sons of American Legion, Bethlehem" (November 1935). Looking at the "American Memory" Library of Congress Web site, which offers on-line versions of most of the FSA prints, one can see that Evans took about a half-dozen images of this Bethlehem parade with a 35 mm camera (thus affording him mobility and speed). The first shot in the series shows the formidable legionnaire as Evans initially saw him—part of a larger group of legionnaires who were informally clustering around him. Evans must have closed in to get this close-up, provoking the glowering and disapproving stare of the sternly patriotic, proudly decorated veteran. The subsequent frame captures the boys in caps, bored and waiting for some action, trying to look the part of junior legionnaires but so far still in the training stage.

Patriotism and the flag figure as themes in several other photographs in this collection, especially those taken by Marjory Collins in 1942. By then, the United States was in the war, and home-front activity is visible not only in displays of loyalty but also in the work performed by women in jobs that would normally have gone to men—working on the Pennsylvania Railroad, in factories, or at filling stations. Such pictures might have come from anywhere in the United States during these late Depression years, but others in this collection give us a portrait of a specific region and a particular state.

This state—Pennsylvania—was anything but a single unit, as the photographs reveal. During the 1930s, regional differences were more distinct; since then, they have been blurred to some extent by suburbanization. For one, the farming industry and the family farm were far more important to the overall Pennsylvania economy than at present. How deeply Pennsylvania farmers suffered the strain of the Depression is clear in Marion Post Wolcott’s photographs of York County farm auctions in 1939. In some ways, the images of the Amish and Mennonites serve as a counterpoint to the depiction of Pennsylvania more generally, for their perpetually conservative way of life, from dress and custom to religion and technology, vividly contrasts with the changes in fashion and the vicissitudes of life outside these communities. But even the Amish and Mennonites were not immune to the downturns of the Depression, as one can see in the depictions of farm auctions in 1942 by Marjory Collins and Jack Collier. Throughout this period strife and labor conflict also featured in Pennsylvania life, and though such conflicts seldom appear in the FSA archive, we do see them in an image such as John Vachon’s portrayal of the strikebreakers at the King Farm near Morrisville in 1938.

The industrial state of Pennsylvania is also made visible here. The mining regions dominated western Pennsylvania, and the photographs by Carl Mydans, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, and John Collier reveal workers caught up in a massive industrial machine fronted by a determined John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960. Meanwhile, Jack Delano’s 1941 photographs of the Bethlehem and Aliquippa steel mills show us an industry gearing up for war production. Pittsburgh, the industrial anchor of western Pennsylvania, is here portrayed with its factories lining the riverfront, a city of production. At the eastern end of the state, the tall towers of Philadelphia in Paul Vanderbilt’s images represent the city as a bastion of financial power.

We also see, amid the deprivations, the pleasures that remained for Depression-era Pennsylvania: fiddling, baseball, dancing, and drinking, the full table at the Lancaster farm in Sheldon Dick’s 1938 photo, the customers portrayed by Jack Delano shopping at a cooperative farmers’ market in 1940. But holding it all together, at the center, are the images of family, none more symbolic of the American ideal than the 1942 Neffsville Thanksgiving photographed by Marjory Collins.

The documentary photographers framing these images of Pennsylvania were working within a generally understood notion of what documentary photography was—a vision articulated by Stryker and embodied in the practice of the various leading photographers in the group. For images of the rural landscape, the FSA photographers might be governed by pictorial conventions derived from painting (e.g., a centered composition, framed by natural elements). For images of the modern city and modern industry, they might draw on the more recent aesthetic conventions of Precisionism, with hard edges and geometric lines creating an abstract design within the picture frame. Or—as with Evans—they might create within a more purely photographic aesthetic, taking advantage of the peculiar way things look when they are photographed.

Human subjects dominate the FSA archive, in which we find three basic approaches to photographing people: (1) candid images, in which the action is taken by the photographer with the subject generally unaware of his or her presence, although in a few cases the subject seems suddenly aware of the camera; (2) posed portraits (the most frequent type of image), in which the subject is obviously aware of the camera and is looking at it, composing him- or herself under the direction of the photographer; and (3) the posed dramatic image, in which the subject is positioned by the photographer so as to represent some "typical" action, feeling, or gesture. Documentary photographers were, more often than not, directing the picture in order to achieve the appearance of "truth" or to gain the desired appearance of a generalized type that the portrait might reveal.

There are so many vital images in this collection of Pennsylvania photography that it is difficult to select just a few to hold up to closer view. Ben Shahn’s 1937 "Man gathering good coal from the slag heaps at Nanty Glo" offers a visceral sense of the man’s perilous angle; Sheldon Dick’s "Second shaft tower at Maple Hill mine seen from the first tower" (1938?) beautifully uses the foreground structure to divide the picture beyond it into geometric segments. John Collier’s "Mennonite girls waiting for ‘Deutsch School’ to begin in Mennonite church" (1942) is an elegant study of the group of girls in their traditional dress, framed by the strict lines of the corner. Esther Bubley’s 1943 studies of the Pittsburgh bus terminal capture the posture and attitudes of impatient patience. Jack Delano’s portrait of the tinplate worker (1941), who is seen in profile with his head turned toward us, is a striking composition, the man’s gaze fixed unalterably on the camera and the viewer; another of Delano’s tinplate workers holds a balletic pose, the steam rising off the forge to the right. And—to close a catalog that might go on and on—Marjory Collins’s curbside sewing machine in Lititz (1942) has an almost surreal presence, framed perfectly within the perspective lines of the sidewalk.

The FSA photographers were, of course, beneficiaries of the Roosevelt administration and most of them felt in full sympathy with its new definitions of the role of government in our lives and with its goals of social welfare. But—to place them in the larger context of social documentary of the time—they were surely to the right of the more deliberately leftist Photo League. Emerging in 1936 out of the Workers’ Film and Photo League, an earlier leftist organization whose purpose was to promote the workers’ struggle, the Photo League was a self-supporting photo school, gallery, and camera club based in New York City and headed by Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman. Given the generally leftist tenor of the times, the Photo League managed to enlist an older generation of photographers (e.g., Hine, Strand, Weston) along with younger photographers including Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, and Walter Rosenblum. Seeking subjects outside of the idealized imagery of "advertised America," the Photo League featured scenes of urban life regularly ignored by the media, such as Aaron Siskind’s study of Harlem. Following a triumphant exhibition in 1948 entitled "This Is the Photo League," the organization fell victim to the paranoid political climate of the postwar years, and—in the face of accusations of communist influence—the group disbanded in 1951. Their work would be virtually forgotten until its rediscovery in the 1980s.

But the Photo League was certainly not the only cultural organization to fall before the anticommunist right. To Congressional Republicans, the federal arts programs and the photography project of the FSA were themselves just short of communist; eventually, the Republicans succeeded in shutting down the New Deal and dismantling the various agencies of the Roosevelt era. Roy Stryker, seeing the writing on the wall, made arrangements to have the FSA file (which had become in 1942 the Farm Security Administration–Office of War Information file) shifted to the Library of Congress for storage and safekeeping. Ironically, the major effort of the FSA-OWI group at that time was to present an idealized vision of America, one that would rally the troops and the home front in support of the battles abroad.

Despite its official termination, the FSA effort continued, in a way, into the forties, when Stryker moved his operations to private industry and began to work for the Standard Oil Company. He managed to pull together a team of photographers, many from the FSA years, who would sustain the documenting of America (enlarging their sphere to incorporate South as well as North America) in order to portray the ramifications of the oil industry in our lives, from production to consumption. In effect, it was another grand opportunity to construct a visual sociology of American life, one paid for by an oil company looking for improved public relations. Mainstream magazines, too—Life, Look, and Fortune, for example—employed a number of former FSA photographers in the forties and fifties as they evolved and perfected the concept of the narrative picture story.

The spirit of the FSA movement reached a kind of apogee in the Family of Man exhibition organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Steichen, by then the curator of photography at the Modern, had seen the FSA show at Grand Central Station in 1938 and had been impressed by the power of documentary photography to portray a national condition and move people’s emotions. During the recovery period after World War II, Steichen conceived the idea of developing a similar show on a global scale, one that would articulate a vision of common interest within a world of difference and promote the peaceful coexistence of nations. Putting out a universal call for images, Steichen, with Wayne Miller’s help, selected 503 images taken by 273 photographers. In addition, Steichen culled images from the files of the FSA and the National Archives in Washington; he went to Life magazine as well. The result—perhaps the most popular photography show ever—featured a selection of images from sixty-eight countries that was shaped by the tradition of American FSA documentary photography as well as by the Henri Cartier-Bresson tradition of the "decisive moment," which was also at that time very influential and was giving rise to a new generation of street photographers. Under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, The Family of Man toured Europe, Asia, Africa, and Russia.

But just as The Family of Man was proclaiming its consensus vision of America and of the world, Robert Frank was traveling the country, creating what would become a classic of dissensus—The Americans. His book would take social observation and documentary photography in a more subjective direction, signaling a skepticism about American society and American prejudices that would open the door to a range of social commentary and description in the decades to follow. Though the FSA under Stryker was striving for a coherent vision, one can find the seeds of Frank’s work and that of other social documentary photographers in the exemplary images by Walker Evans and his FSA colleagues.

Pennsylvania—with its mix of cities and small towns, its rural and wilderness areas, its mining industries and rich farming areas, its financial and cultural centers—has always offered a microcosm of American life. The Pennsylvania FSA photographs constitute a record of America at a crucial turning point in its history, a nation struggling to survive the worst economic depression of the twentieth century. Because of their great artistic value, these photographs are a record worth looking at again and again.

Miles Orvell