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The individual most responsible for the triumph of the documentary style was probably Roy Stryker of the government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), who sent a platoon of famous photographers out to record the lives of impoverished farmers and thus “introduce America to Americans.” Stryker was the son of a Kansas Populist, and, according to a recent study of his work, “agrarian populism” was the “first basic assumption” of the distinctive FSA style. Other agencies pursued the same aesthetic goal from different directions. Federal workers transcribed folklore, interviewed surviving ex-slaves, and recorded the music of the common man. Federally employed artists painted murals illustrating local legends and the daily work of ordinary people on the walls of public buildings. Unknowns contributed to this work, and great artists did too—Thomas Hart Benton, for example, painted a mural that was actually titled A Social History of the State of Missouri in the capitol building in Jefferson City.16 There was a mania for documentary books, photos of ordinary people in their homes and workplaces that were collected and narrated by some renowned prose stylist. James Agee wrote the most enduring of these, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in cooperation with photographer Walker Evans, but there were many others. The novelist Erskine Caldwell and the photographer Margaret Bourke-White published You Have Seen Their Faces in 1937, while Richard Wright, fresh from the success of his novel Native Son, published Twelve Million Black Voices in 1941, with depictions of African American life chosen from the populist photographic output of the FSA.
Thomas Frank (The People, No: The War on Populism and the Fight for Democracy)