Home / Authors / What Wedding Photographers Can Learn from the Farm Security Administration – Part 1

What Wedding Photographers Can Learn from the Farm Security Administration – Part 1

Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks

I recently attended the Graduate Symposium on Creativity at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Annie Leibovitz was the Keynote Speaker, followed by a panel discussion with creative professionals in the fields of art education, interior design, book arts, exhibition design and photojournalism.

During her keynote, Leibovitz talked about pushing the creative envelope even when you are doing commissioned work. Largely, Leibovitz’s work is commissioned, although her most recent project, Pilgrimage, is a personal project and as she says in the book, “For me, it meant going back to taking pictures when I was moved to take a picture. When there wasn’t an agenda…To be in a situation where I took a picture just because I saw it.” Leibovitz commented that this personal project directly fed into her portraiture work that followed.

Are personal work and side projects the only ways to fulfill your creative needs? Or is there balance we can find while doing creative works for hire? Leibovitz made the point that just because work is commissioned or “for hire” does not mean that it cannot also be an opportunity to create art or feed your creative soul. Leibovitz strives to create art in her commissioned work and to go beyond simply doing what the assignment dictates.

Providing an example of this point, Leibovitz talked about the “shooting scripts” given to the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers. Photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks created iconic fine art images during their employment with the FSA, in spite of being given specific directions and photo requests. As Leibovitz explained the FSA’s “shooting scripts” and the fine art that resulted in spite of such specific direction, I instantly recalled the “photo checklists” and “requested photo lists” we receive as wedding photographers.

From 1935-1943, Roy E. Stryker was Chief of the Historical Section, in the Division of Information of the FSA. He described the purpose of his job in a 1963 interview as “to collect documents and materials that might have some bearing, later, on the history of the Farm Security Administration.”  Working with photographers, he launched a documentary project. He gave photographers detailed “shooting scripts” outlining the types of images to capture. For example, the following excerpt is from a 1939 shooting script for photo-documentation of a small town:

People on the street. Let these be quite representative. These shots should show faces, clothing, and activities.

a. men loafing and talking
b. “Saturday afternoon”
c. window shopping
d. women and children waiting for the men e. men and women coming out of the stores with bundles and packages — e.g., in country towns man carrying tools and harness out of hardware store
f. women pushing baby carriages.

You can peruse this and many other shooting scripts on the Library of Congress’ website.

Is the FSA shooting script really much different than what clients send us before their wedding? For comparison, this is a portion of a bride’s checklist sent to her photographer:


i. bride and groom saying their vows
ii. bride and groom exchanging rings
iii. groom kissing the bride at the altar
iv. bride and groom exiting the church
v. the recessional
vi. groom and groomsmen with Met hats

As you can see above,  iconic images were created during the FSA photo-documentary project, all of which are in the public domain and held at the Library of Congress. You can browse the catalog, and you will come across images you recognize, even if you were previously unaware of the FSA photo-documentary project. An important chapter in American history was documented – fulfilling the primary purpose of Roy Stryker’s job. But many of these images go beyond simple documentation. They transcend, becoming iconic symbols of an era in American history. They are the images we call to mind when we think of the Depression.

As wedding photographers, how can we push the creative envelope? Is it possible to shoot for ourselves and fulfill our clients’ needs? While talking about her commissioned work, Leibovitz stated, “I wouldn’t have the career I have, or have had it for as long as I have, if I had gone out and done just what they told me to do.”

This got me thinking…

What if we could do both? Is it possible to do work we are inspired to create while we are doing commissioned work? What if we looked at lists, schedules and the routine of shooting wedding after wedding as an opportunity rather than a hindrance to creativity?

We’ll tackle these issues next week in my follow-up post, What Wedding Photographers Can Learn from the Farm Security Administration, Part 2!

Written by Jessica Del Vecchio
Jessica is a portrait and wedding photographer based in Washington, DC where she started her business in 2003. When she’s not focused on commissioned work, she likes to play with old cameras, b&w film and alternative printing processes. Jessica also volunteers her time and photography skills to Bread for the City and Operation:LoveReunited. If you can’t find her on a non-working day, chances are she’s in one of DC’s many museums and galleries.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!