Little information is available about the sheep shearing picture, other than the year it was taken and its location — in Converse County in 1936. It is in a collection archived by the Library of Congress. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [reproduction number LC-USF34-00456])

In 1936, a young New York photographer working for the federal government crossed Wyoming taking pictures of people and landscapes wracked by drought the Great Depression. Arthur Rothstein worked for the Farm Security Administration on a project that sought to use photography to build support for rural aid and other programs.

Ironically, what was launched as a federal PR program came to stand as one of the most significant documentary photography collections in the world. Rothstein, along with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Walcott, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee, and others amassed an archive of Dust Bowl, Great Depression and urbanization photos that became iconic.

Little information is available about the sheep shearing picture, other than the year it was taken and its location — in Converse County. It is in a collection archived by the Library of Congress. Many of the photographs have been collected in digital database accessible on a state-by-state, county-by-county interactive map assembled by a team at Yale University and offered through a platform called Photogrammar.

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Although documentary photography seeks to portray reality without any filter, the FSA project was not without controversy, both at the time it was underway and today. Project leader Roy Stryker told photographers what to focus on and some of them posed subjects in a manner that would be unacceptable in documentary or journalistic work today. Nevertheless, most FSA images are credible depictions of a period in American history that would be less significant if it weren’t for the work of Stryker and his talented crew.

Stop the presses!

UPDATE, APRIL 11 — “Little information is available…,” we wrote — until Michael Cassity, former University of Wyoming professor and photographer, decided to educate WyoFile.

“The wool had to be packed, and in large operations it was done by a man who sat at the top of the bag and treaded the wool as it was placed in the bag,” he wrote after seeing our Photo Friday image last week.  “In small, family, operations, the whole family participated.”

Why are the kids on the roof? Why do there appear to be clumps of wool on the roof? What’s that tall white bag, partially obscured, on the right side of the photo?

“The evidence is circumstantial that [the kids] were the ones tramping the wool, but their location on the roof adjacent to the bag suggests as much,” Cassity wrote, “and, in another photo [see below], a third youngster is in the bag.”

For more on Cassity’s research and photography, including work about federal public works projects in the state, visit his website.

This view of the same sheep shearing scene suggests the kids helped tramp down the wool in the big bag in the background. Among the instructions Roy Stryker gave to federal depression-era photographers, like Arthur Rothstein, was to concentrate on rural scenes, farmers and children.
(Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress LC-USF34-004561-D)

 

 

 

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. For men my age “tromping” wool was one of the summer jobs, like “haying”, that paid for our school clothes.