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The Bitter Years

The Farm Security Administration Photographs Through the Eyes of Edward Steichen

Françoise Poos

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A celebration of some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century that provides a whole new insight into Edward Steichen’s impact on the history of documentary photography


'The Bitter Years' was a seminal exhibition curated by Edward Steichen in 1962 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The show featured 208 images by photographers who worked under the aegis of the US Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1935-41 as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

The Great Depression of the 1930s defined a generation in modern American history and was still a vivid memory in 1962. The FSA, set up to combat rural poverty, included an ambitious photography project that launched many photographic careers, most notably those of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. The exhibition featured their work as well as that of ten other FSA photographers, including Ben Shahn, Carl Mydans, and Arthur Rothstein. Their images are among the most remarkable in documentary photography - testimonies of a people in crisis, hit by the full force of the economic turmoil and the effects of drought and dust storms.

'The Bitter Years' was the last exhibition curated by Steichen, who was not only a distinguished photographer in his own right, but also a celebrated director of the photography department at MoMa, in which role he had won international acclaim in 1955 for 'The Family of Man' exhibition.

This book is published in association with the Centre National de l'Audiovisuel and the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg. It accompanies a permanent display at the Château d'Eau in Dudelange of the original exhibition, given by Steichen, who was born in Luxembourg. No proper catalogue was produced of the exhibition in 1962 so this book provides a unique opportunity to see all the photographs in a structure and sequence that reflect those devised by Steichen for the original show.

Jean Back, Director of the Centre National de l'Audiovisuel, contributes an introduction to the book and the four essays by international writers and teachers on photography discuss the FSA, its place in the history of 20th-century photography and the continuing role of its archive, Steichen and the origins, impact and legacy of the exhibition, and its new location in Luxembourg.

The Bitter Years celebrates some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century and provides a whole new insight into Steichen's impact on the history of documentary photography.

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'The exhibition, frank and unflinching yet also deeply moving, was never catalogued; now a new book reproduces not only the photographs but also Steichen's careful sequencing'

'Offers a poignant and heartbreaking insight into the Great Depression of the 1930s ... compelling and unexpectedly beautiful, as pure emotion is palpable throughout'

'Featuring the work of the FSA photographers…we are taken on a journey through some of the most remarkable documentary photography ever made'
Black and White Photography

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 30.5 x 24.0 cm

Extent: 288 pp

Publication date: 8 October 2012

ISBN: 9780500544181

About the Author

Françoise Poos is a curator at the National Audio Visual Centre, Luxembourg. Ellen Handy is Chair of the Photography Department, City College of the City University, New York. Gabriel Bauret is the author of books on Colour Photography, Alexey Brodovitch and Peter Knapp. He has been artistic director of Le Mois de la Photo, Paris. Ariane Pollet wrote her doctorate at the University of Lausanne on Steichen’s work at MoMA, New York. Antoinette Lorang received her doctorate at the University of Heidelberg.

Jean Back is Director of the Centre National de l’Audiovisuel.

List of Contributors

Jean Back, Gabriel Bauret, Antoinette Lorang, Miles Orvell, Ariane Pollet