In 1937 President Roosevelt passed the Bankhead-Jones Tenant Farm Act, an early microloan program overseen by the Farm Security Administration designed to transition tenant farmers into landowners. In addition monetary assistance, borrowers were closely monitored and supported by FSA extension agents. FSA photographers, such as John Vachon, often accompanied these site visits in order to document the program’s progress and efficacy as well as rural, ordinary American life.
Though not a trained photographer, Vachon’s interest in the American experience grew as he worked cataloging and captioning the images photographers sent to Washington, DC from the field. Borrowing a camera on weekends, Vachon began exploring the Potomac Valley, filling gaps he saw in the FSA archive. His ad-hoc work, under the guidance of FSA Information Division Head Roy Stryker, continued until 1941, when he was reclassified as a photographer.
The images collected by the FSA from 1935-1944 constitute a crucial archive of rural American life in the pre-WWII era. Though the program’s most infamous photographs were sourced from the Dust Bowl and South, photographers made their way through Appalachia, inner cities, and in two cases, St. Mary’s County Maryland.
In September 1940 the FSA conducted a site visit at the home of borrower and Cedar Point resident John Dyson with photographer John Vachon. The road to land ownership had been long—John was born a slave in St. Mary’s County. Despite his age, he had a very real prospect at landownership.
However, the opportunity was short lived. Just one year after Vachon documented the Dyson home near Pearson, war had come to the United States and the residents of the strategic peninsula were promptly evicted to allow the construction of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Little did Vachon know that the photographs he took in September of 1940 were some of the last to document rural life at Cedar Point.
Vachon’s work is especially noted for its sense of social justice. Though the head of the FSA’s photography program expressed interest in documenting the “Negro problem,”** photographers rarely did—images of African-Americans were not considered fit to print. Nonetheless, Vachon continued to photograph the lives of maligned and powerless.
The archive that Vachon left behind is a powerful one. The indelible impression he left on the FSA photography program is a reflection of his belief that it should be an, “honest presentation and preservation of the American scene. If that is done, it can be drawn upon like dependable statistics to support or refute. If formed only to present, it can be used to propagandize.” For St. Mary’s County, Vachon’s work offers a glimpse into a community on the brink of change.
More images of St. Mary’s County collected by the Farm Security Administration can be found at the Library of Congress’ website.
*Information on John Vachon’s work was sourced from John Vachon’s America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II.