The Pennsylvania FSA Re-Photographic Survey Project

History of the Project
This project began in 1993 after I received a grant from the Edinboro University Faculty Senate to travel to Washington, D.C. to study the FSA collection housed in the Library of Congress. My idea was to return to some of the original sites and re-photograph them. I quickly realized that the scope of this plan would have to be severely limited; the sheer number of sites (2,200) and photographs (200,000) was overwhelming! I decided to confine the project to Pennsylvania, but did, while I was at it, map out most of the site locations east of the Mississippi River, plus Texas, for future travels (1998, 1999).
In 1993, the photographs in the Library of Congress collection were on microfilm, each image labelled with the name of the photographer, year, town, state, and sometimes (not often), a detail or two. Copies of the microfilms, as well as prints from the original negatives, are available from the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. By 1998/99, almost all of the images were available from the Library of Congress website.

The EUP grant also allowed me to visit the University of Louisville Photographic Archives, where the papers of Roy Stryker, FSA Project Director, are housed. Although the letters written to and from the photographers were lively and interesting, they provided little specific information on where many of the photographs were taken, or who they were taken of. Stryker's "shooting scripts" were very revealing of his agenda for the project. It was a good look into the structure, or underpinnings, of the work.

A side trip to Cave City, Kentucky highlighted a couple of important issues to consider when re-photographing a site. Photographer Marion Post- Wolcott photographed Cave City for the FSA in 1940. Cave City, south of Louisville on route 31W, is located near Mammoth Cave National Park. A well-known photograph of a circle of concrete teepees was relatively easy to find.

The Wigwam Motel is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of only three remaining Wigwam Motel villages in the United States.

Driving through the small town of Cave City, however, yielded no sign that the other photo sites still existed. It wasn't until my traveling companion noticed the photos of Cave City looked more like the nearby town of Horse Cave that we realized the photographs were mislabeled. When I returned to Horse Cave, there were the "photographs," in plain sight, right where they had been since 1940. I knew then I had to be alert to the possibility that other photographs were mislabeled.

I made another important discovery in Horse Cave. Although the FSA photographers often spent considerable time photographing people in their homes and in their work places, not as much attention was given to a "place." Marion Post-Wolcott pulled her car into Horse Cave, KY, parked, got out, shot a photograph straight down the street, turned 90 degrees, and shot a photo straight down another street. We discovered this habit to be common at many of our Pennsylvania sites. Although somewhat lacking in imagination, it has certainly helped out in our searches!

The First Trip
I received another grant from the Edinboro University Faculty Senate to travel to the Steel Mill Towns north of Pittsburgh with a group of students. The steel mill towns were one of three major areas in Pennsylvania I had identified as being possible to re-photograph. The other areas were the coal mining towns in East/Central PA and Pittsburgh. The first trip to the steel mill towns north of Pittsburgh took place April 14-17, 1995 (an Easter week- end) with six Edinboro University Photography students: Thomasina Berdine, Melissa Garcia, Heather Kadar, Vince Marangoni, Bill Pohl, and Susan Protin. We visited the following towns, all located along the Ohio River: Ambridge, Aliquippa, West Aliquippa, Midland, Beaver Falls, New Brighton, and Rochester.

We found our first "matches" in Midland, PA. This town is also where we found Mr. Lesley Roach, local barber. At 87, Mr. Roach is going strong! He gave us great information on the history of Midland, on what places were still there, and what had been torn down. It occurred to us that barbershops would be very good places to get all kinds of useful information!

Time and time again we were able to find several pictures once we found one by simply looking to our right or to our left!

Another Grant!
We received a grant from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to travel to all the sites in Pennsylvania, to buy photos made from the original negatives from the Library of Congress, and to print/produce the results of our work.

The Coal Mining Towns
The coal mining towns of East/central Pennsylvania were visited from May 25-28, 1995. Towns visited included: Shenandoah, Tamaqua, Coaldale, Lansford, Mauch Chunk, and East Mauch Chunk (the Mauch Chunks are now known as Jim Thorpe).

We encountered an unforseen problem! As the coal mines emptied themselves out, the excess material piled up, creating "new mountains" that vegetation eventually grew up on! We discovered that when the background landscape changed, it was almost impossible to find a site. One town, Shenandoah, had sunk 30' just in 1942! New leaves obscured many of our views, making it necessary for us to plan another trip in the early spring of 1996.

Our "barber theory" held true: we met Shenandoah barber John Catizone, who told us many good stories and pointed us in several right directions.

A side trip to Bethlehem netted us a current version of the 1935 Walker Evans cemetery photograph. We also made a detour to Centralia (a town that has had a coal mine fire burning underneath it for 30 years; it will never go out). Centralia is located on route 61 just north of Ashland. Most of the houses have been moved out, and smoke can be seen rising from cracks in the earth. It is a very surrealistic place. Don't stop your car; your tires might melt! Another interesting place to visit is the #9 Mine "Wash Shanty" Anthracite Coal Mining Museum in Lansford. Retired miners are restoring an old mine tunnel, mostly by hand.

An Ill-Fated Trip to Pittsburgh & a Better Trip Later
Our first trip to Pittsburgh ended with us all getting a case of sunstroke! It was August, unbearably hot, and after an hour or so on the Southside overlooks, we were good for nothing more than sitting in a cool, dark restaurant drinking lots of water. We did a bit more driving around the next morning, scouting out locations, but cut the trip short and returned to Edinboro.

We returned to Pittsburgh the weekend of December 1-3, 1995. We photographed in an area above the Strip District (Bigelow Boulevard) as well as down along the Allegheny River facing downtown. Many interesting sites continue to elude us. During this trip, we returned to the nearby steel mill towns, visiting a cemetery surrounded by a nuclear power plant, and Mr. Roach (the barber) in Midland, and found a few more sites to photograph.

The group was reduced to Thomasina Berdine, Melissa Garcia, Vince Marangoni, and Bill Pohl. Heather Kadar spent the fall semester at the Salt Documentary Program in Portland, Maine. Susan Protin's final semester was too hectic for her to continue to participate.

Our First Presentation
A slide-lecture on our work in the steel mill towns was prepared for the Edinboro University annual Academic Festival (February 1996).

Other activities
Vince Marangoni made a trip on his own to Nanty Glo, PA, netting several photos that were originally taken
in 1937 by Ben Shahn.
We also took a day trip to the one site in nearby Erie (the G.E. plant) that was photographed in 1941 by John Vachon.
The work was printed by Melissa Garcia and Vince Marangoni, and organized into an exhibition of 20-25
"then" and "now" photographs.
During the winter of 1999, I took the project down to the South (LA, MS, AL, GA, NC, SC) and to Texas. This phase of the work was made possible by a sabbatical leave from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

For more information on this project, please e-mail me at: