Sheldon Dick was a photographer with the Farm Security Administration.
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created in the Department of Agriculture in 1937. The FSA and its predecessor, the Resettlement Administration (RA), were New Deal programs designed to assist poor farmers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Roy Emerson Stryker was the head of a special photographic section in the RA and FSA from 1935-1942. During its eight-year existence, the section created the 77,000 black-and-white documentary still photographs (at the Library of Congress) for which it is world-famous. Beginning in 1939, it created these 644 color documentary still photographs. The section's documentary project continued for one year after the unit moved to the Office of War Information in 1942.
The black-and-white photographs of the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are a landmark in the history of documentary photography. The images show Americans at home, at work, and at play, with an emphasis on rural and small-town life and the adverse effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and increasing farm mechanization. Some of the most famous images portray people who were displaced from farms and migrated West or to industrial cities in search of work. In its latter years, the project documented America's mobilization for World War II.
The collection includes about 164,000 black-and-white negatives; this release provides access to over 160,000 of these images. The FSA-OWI photographers also produced about 1600 color photographs. Two illustrated lists of frequently requested images from the FSA-OWI Collection, "'Migrant Mother' Photographs" and "Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination", are also available from the Prints and Photographs Reading Room.
What was Sheldon Dick's REAL mission in this area?
From "A Narrative in FSA Photography", by Juliet Gorman, May 2001:
"The emphasis vacillated between conveying factual content and emotion, atmosphere, or aura. It was important to demonstrate the facts of the conditions, surely- this was a primary aim of 1930s documentary work. But, at times, what Stryker and the FSA photographers considered more effective and more vital was to convey what those conditions felt like. In this letter to Sheldon Dick, an FSA photographer, before his 1938 assignment to a Pennsylvania coal town, Stryker elaborated the emphasis on the feeling of a place:
The specific things I noted when I was there were that the town dropped down into a Pennsylvania mountain valley. Everywhere you look is man-made desolation, waste piles, bare hills, dirty streets. It is terribly important that you in some way try to show the town against this background of waste piles and coal tipples. In other words, it is a coal town and your pictures must tell it. It is a church dominated place...The place is not prosperous, people are loafing in saloons and around the streets. You must get this feeling of unemployment. There are many unpaved streets...The houses are old and rundown. The place is devoid of paint. I am sure lots of cheap liquor is consumed for no other reason than in an attempt to blot out the drabness of the place. When you are ready to shoot people try to pick up something of the feeling on the side of youth. Try to portray the hopelessness of their position...youth's confusions- liquor, swing, sex, and more liquor. The actual details will have to be worked out by yourself. (Trachtenberg 62, emphasis mine)
Here Stryker is staging a scene for Dick in words, and it becomes his job to work out how to translate this scene visually for his viewers. In order to demonstrate the feeling of the place that he is encouraging Dick to portray, Stryker narrates it. Youth's disaffection- the liquor, the swing, the sex, more liquor- a story so old it we recognize it before it is fully articulated, and yet so powerful for us that it carries an emotional currency."
Sheldon Dick committed suicide in the 1950s.
Roy Stryker talks about Sheldon Dick in an 1965 interview with Robert Doud:
"ROY STRYKER: Sheldon Dick was one of the offspring of the A.B. Dick Company and once upon a time when I was in New York Willard Morgan and the man that was with Willard -- I'll think of his name and give it to you later -- they were partners in that, and by the way he edited the -- will you stop the machine a minute and I'll get it for you. It was Henry Lester. Henry Lester was a partner of Willard Morgan in the early days of their book publishing. And Sheldon Dick was a rich man's son and he had a desire to do things, and I went up one time and they wanted to know if I would take Sheldon down to Washington on more or less a dollar a year, he would like to work, and I agreed to it. Sheldon came down on his dollar a year, virtually. His first job was to go up to Shenandoah. You may remember the job that Harper's did on the several states of the United States and one of them was at Shenandoah, it was a hard coal area that had lost its coal. It was a fantastic little town and you could practically set your cameras up and triggered them and have them on rotate, and gotten pictures. Sheldon went up, a terribly nice boy, but was a little worried about the fact that he was a checkbook -- he was a checkbook for the left-wingers at the time. So he went up with a shooting script from me and a lot of excitement and he came back with some pictures but he wouldn't let me see them until he had them printed, and he came down to Washington on a Sunday with his books, the pictures had been printed, the captions had been written, type set, and pasted on. I tell you this experience, because it's a very curious experience, I went through the books twice, the pictures were lousy, just plain lousy, I was rather shocked that all the energy had been spent on typescript, I mean typeset and paste ins. And finally Sheldon said, "Roy Stryker, don't you dare start talking about out of focus pictures because you've got plenty of them in here." Then we went at it, two thousand dollars worth of fancy cameras and fancy cases. It was rather tragic because, as I say, he was a rich man's son who got rather worried about not having something that he really could do. It didn't work out. He tried two or three other things for us and it didn't work. Sheldon then went on his own, tried to do a movie down in the tri-state area down in the zinc mines, he would up very, very tragically. He shot himself, or he shot his wife, and one of the kids and himself. But it's one of the things I'm sorry didn't happen because I looked forward to it, I mean it would be a wonderful thing that you could help a guy. I saw him many times afterward and I saw the resentment that he had toward having been the checkbook for some of the leftwingers and others. He never had a chance to be himself. It was one of the worst cases I've ever known in my experience of the wealthy son who couldn't get away from it. It's a long story but I made too much of it but at least I thought you'd be interested in it."