Edwin Rosskam was a teenager living in Germany when World War I broke out. His American-born parents wanted to flee with him, but they became trapped behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. Rosskam told Smithsonian in 1965 that he felt like an “enemy alien child.” In 1919, a year after the war ended, then-15 year-old Rosskam finally made his way to the states, where he finished in high school in Philadelphia. After high school, he remained in Philadelphia to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied painting. After art school he mounted a few painting exhibitions, but eventually switched to photography, the medium that would rule his life.
He landed freelance photojournalism gigs and shot for Life, then in its infancy, which sent him to Puerto Rico, where police had recently fired on protestors calling for independence from the United States. From the beginning, his work was firmly rooted in a sense of place—one of his earliest jobs was editing a series of site-specific photo books called The Face of America, which took him to San Francisco, and then Washington D.C., where he met Roy Stryker.
Stryker headed up the photographic arm of the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal agency set up in 1937 to help the rural poor. Rosskam went to Stryker hoping to source images for the Washington D.C. Face of America photo book from the FSA file, but got much more out of the meeting. Stryker was impressed with Rosskam’s skill set as a photographer who could also edit, and in 1940 hired him to be a visual aid specialist for the FSA. Rather than hitting the road like Dorothea Lange and other FSA photographers, Rosskam was tasked with editing down the thousands of images sent back to Washington D.C. and turning them into exhibits that could tour the country. At one point, he said, he had pulled the oft-requested Lange image of a California migrant mother with her two children so many times that he would “get sick.” “I couldn’t look at that picture anymore,” he said in the 1965 Smithsonian interview. “It was a wonderful picture, but I had just seen it too much.” He would leave the job about one year after he started it.
Rosskam tried to make the point for documenting the good alongside the bad, but found it hard to convince FSA photographers to do so. “Poverty, desperation are dramatic,” he told Smithsonian. It's much easier to take an interesting picture of the dead cat on the ash can, than a picture of a live cat asleep.”
In 1940, Rosskam approached Viking press and asked them if they would put him in touch with the author Richard Wright. Wright had just published Native Son, a novel chronicling the struggles of a young black man living on Chicago’s South Side. Rosskam was greatly moved by the book and proposed a collaboration: What if they put together a photo book about the black experience in America, with words by Wright and photo direction from Rosskam? Wright liked the idea and traveled to Washington D.C. to peruse images in the FSA archive with Rosskam, who was no longer employed by the agency but still had a relationship with Stryker.
The FSA photo files were filled with images of rural black communities in the South, but not of urban centers where many African Americans relocated during the Great Migration, a period beginning in 1910 in which millions of blacks moved from rural centers to cities. Rosskam went to his former boss Stryker and argued that the images FSA photographers had shot in the South told an incomplete story—they should also be photographing urban black communities. Stryker agreed, and in 1941 he sent Rosskam and FSA photographer Russell Lee to Chicago.
Wright introduced the pair to the black sociologist Horace R. Cayton, who helped them gain access to churches, hospitals and local families. Rosskam photographed “kitchenette apartments”—cramped, overpriced units made from larger homes chopped into smaller quarters—and unemployed men and women who eked out a living by selling cast off items they found in the street. He also photographed boys in dapper suits and women in elaborate hats celebrating the Easter holiday, as well as children lined up at the movie theater, and leaping and laughing as they played outside.
Some critics took Wright and Rosskam’s book, 12 Million Black Voices, to task for being too bleak when it was published in October 1941. Wright wrote in his introduction that “the text assumes that those few Negroes who have lifted themselves, through personal strength, talent, or luck, above the lives of their fellow blacks—like single fishes that leap and flash for a split second above the surface of the sea—are but fleeting exceptions to that vast, tragic school that swims below in the depths, against the current, silently and heavily, struggling against the waves of vicissitudes that spell a common fate.” And while Rosskam did select some images of revelry, most tended toward the stoic and downtrodden.
Writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, Beatrice Murphy called the book depressing, and wondered if African Americans would be “hopelessly discouraged” by it. In his 1992 book, The Black Image in the New Deal, writer Nicholas Natanson, an archivist for the National Archives, points out that Rosskam altered an image in 12 Million Black Voices to change the tone of the image. He had snapped an image of little girl inside a “kitchenette” apartment, who responded by sticking out her tongue. But that might have been too playful for Rosskam, writes Natanson, “it did not fit the desperate mood of 12 Million Black Voices” and the photograph was removed by careful editing.
12 Million Black Voices also received a great deal of praise, but ultimately came nowhere close to the success of Native Son, partly due to the fact it was published not long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rosskam, who died in 1985, was photographer who was always colored by his role as an editor.
“After all, what is photography?” he said in the 1965 interview. “Photography is a matter of selection. In a given place, at a given moment, you point your camera at a particular frame of amorphous reality, select that frame out and click the shutter and say, ‘This is it.’”
No matter where you go in America, there is bound to be a “ghetto.” It seems like something we can’t get away from: the beautiful, manicured suburb and the bad neighborhood on the other side of the tracks. In cities like Philadelphia, where I live, the best place to meet the people in those poorer neighborhoods is the stoop.
The stoop is a place reserved for friends and family; it’s where people feel comfortable being themselves and being real. For this project, I was inspired by the work of WPA-era photographer Edwin Rosskam. His images are brutally honest; he never tried to hide the ugliness of the neighborhoods he photographed during the 1940s. Rosskam showed black people surviving in their habitats, allowing them to pose and acknowledge the camera, seeming at once confident and relaxed in their space.
To create work with the same directness, I interviewed several men in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, a predominately Latino area with a large black community. Inevitably, we landed on the stoop for our conversations. It took a while for the neighborhood locals to warm up to me, but after four or five months of me saying hello every day, people began to invite me to the stoop. Our conversations centered on the neighborhood, how people wanted to leave but felt trapped. The resulting painting, titled only if i hit the lotto, is a reflection of my discussions about gentrification and redlining in Philadelphia; how areas that are only a 10-minute drive away can feel like a different universe, filled with new businesses thanks to loans that the people of Kensington can’t ever seem to get.
Patricia Renee’ Thomas is a Philadelphia-based painter. She has shown her work in group shows at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and New Image Art Gallery in West Hollywood.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen.
When Art Is an Act of Protest
A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.
Hole in One
Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.
Public Service Announcements
Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.
If You Build It, They Will Leave
During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.
Proposals for a Monument
Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.
A Room of One’s Own
A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.
Back to the Music, Back to the Game
A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair
Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
Stoop Life and Survival
Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.
The Afterlives of Slaves
Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.
Portraits of Hard Living in America
The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
She Works Hard for the Money
During the Depression, women were advised to “sing for their supper” as a way to survive hard times.
Wall to Wall
Public murals are contested spaces, where retellings of history and new visions of the future fight for prominence.
Signs of Boom and Bust
Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.
After the Curtain Calls
Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.
The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool
Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.
The People of the Land
Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.
Letting Sleeping Children Lie
Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.
The Cycle of a Woman’s Life
A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.
More Federal Project No. 2
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen, and how it sees itself.