Photoville 2018: WORK AND WORKING – WPA Photographs

NYC: Work and Working was on display as a part of Photoville 2018, located in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Greenwich Village Blacksmith, 33 Cornelia Street, August 3, 1937. Photograph by E.M. Bofinger, WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Greenwich Village Blacksmith, 33 Cornelia Street, August 3, 1937. Photograph by E.M. Bofinger, WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Great Depression of the 1930s caused massive unemployment, hunger, despair and violence. Historian William E. Leuchtenberg described it as a “knife that cut down impartially through the entire population cleaving open lives and hopes of rich as well as poor.” For the millions who found themselves without work and unable to feed their families, there seemed no place to turn. The funds provided by private charities and by state and local governments were soon exhausted.

Staff of the NY City Unit of the WPA Federal Writer's Project, ca. 1938.

In the presidential campaign of 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “New Deal” and was elected by a landslide. His first priority was to put people back to work, preferably in jobs that would preserve their skills. One result was the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA), which ended up employing over 8.5 million people from 1935 to 1943; 700,000 in New York City alone. The WPA did not just improve parks and build roadways—a portion of the money was set aside for unemployed professionals in the “arts.” As director Harry Hopkins explained, “they have to eat like other people.” It was called Federal Project Number One, and consisted of Art, Music, Theatre and Writers’ Projects. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was the only one to operate in all 48 states and the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as New York City. At its peak, in April of 1936, there were 6,686 on the payroll nationwide; approximately 40% were women.

The New York City housed the largest FWP Unit, employing, nearly 300 people. The writers produced the New York City Guide, New York Panorama, Almanac for New Yorkers, a number of ethnic studies, Who's Who in the Zoo—a total of 64 proposed books. The New York City Guide proved so durable and popular that it was re-published in 1966, 1982 and again in 1992. To illustrate the books, the NYC unit acquired photographs from trade organizations, other branches of Federal Project One, and sent staff photographers to document many aspects of New York City.

Subway excavation workers, 1941. Photograph by Andrew Herman, WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The tour-guide nature of the books explains the curious absence in the photographs of the sordid Depression-era realities. (In addition, in 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, under Chairman Martin Dies, (D-Texas), used photographs from the NYC Unit of the Writers’ Project to target alleged Communist Party members on the staff. Photographs that depicted social “unrest,” such as strikes or breadlines, were removed from the Project files.) The NYC FWP photographers adhered to a documentary approach; there was no attempt to glamorize. The result is an unsentimental portrait of bartenders and carny barkers, wrestlers and garment workers, blacksmiths and tattoo artists, fishmongers and pretzel vendors—the gritty reality of 1930s New York.

In 1943, after controversies over funding and mismanagement, the necessities of World War II brought the WPA to a close. The NYC Unit of the FWP transferred its files, including the photographs, to Rebecca Rankin, Chief Librarian at the NYC Municipal Reference Library; the collection was later transferred to the Municipal Archives.

The photographs in this exhibit were selected from more than 5,000 images assembled by the NYC Unit to illustrate the 64 proposed publications. Works of well-known photographers Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott are in the exhibit, alongside others of equal talent including Sam Brody, Ralph DeSola, Charles Eiseman, Andrew Herman, Sol Horn, Sol Libsohn, Aubrey Pollard, David Robbins, Clifford Sutcliffe, James Suydam, Daniel Treistman, and Jack Rosenzweig.


This display was inspired by an exhibit at the Municipal Archives curated by Barbara H. Millstein in 1980. It highlights many images from the collection that previously had been overlooked or were from negatives not yet available in 1980. In 1993, the National Endowment for the Humanities provided generous support to the Municipal Archives to preserve and microfilm the collection.