During the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Farm Security Administration, a governmental agency created by the Roosevelt administration, mobilized an effort to chronicle the lives of Americans being affected by the Dust Bowl. Farm land throughout the Midwestern and Western regions of the nation had been parched by long term drought, causing topsoil to be blown away and choking the harvests of every crop. American farm families were devastated economically and spiritually by the natural disaster. To document this crisis, picture editor Roy Stryker put together one of the greatest teams in the history of photojournalism. Among the photographers were Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Carl Mydans. This effort came at a crucial time for this new profession being born. It came at the same time Henry Luce was creating LIFE, and the existence of the government project gave credibility to the idea that photographers could go out and tell stories visually, stories that would stand up as documents of the time rather than simply as individual photographs.
The work of these photographers are now regarded as some of the most important examples of photojournalism. Most of the photographers went on to form the nucleus of the staffs of the great picture magazines, LIFE and LOOK.
Several years ago, a dental hygienist that cleaned my teeth in Washington started to tell me about her passion to document the lives of today's farm families as the FSA did. She would use some of the money she made cleaning teeth to fund her excursions across the breadth of America, where she would photograph farm families and do audio recordings of their lives. She felt that the traditional American farm was in danger of disappearing, to be replaced by major conglomerates with no long term interest in preserving the land that generations of farmers had made productive.
In the following months, Cynthia Vagnetti started to absorb some of the early training sessions that ultimately became the Platypus Workshop. She started to carry a mini DV video camcorder with her on her trips, and after she had taken her black and white still photographs, began to do formal TV interviews with the families.
As she began to show her work at conventions and shows related to farming, she found a kindred soul in a professor from Iowa State University, Jerry DeWitt, who had also been doing his own independent research on sustainable agriculture. Together , they were able to put together a proposal and receive a grant for funding of a project that has occupied the past 18 months.
Together, they have identified 27 farm families across 20 states, ranging from sugar cane growers in Louisiana to vineyard owners in northern California. They have revisited the families two to four times a year, as the farmers have gone though the planting to harvest cycle. Cynthia has photographed the farmers with black and white film and done interviews with her digital video camcorder. Jerry Dewitt has photographed the land in color, and built his own text files. As Jerry says, "Cynthia shoots two legged creatures and I shoot the ones with four, or things that don't move."
In the months ahead, Cynthia and Jerry will start to assemble their work into a book, People Sustaining the Land, and and conduct educational events that will tour the country.
We feel that their work represents the best that we would like to achieve with our concept of The Platypus: individual visual storytellers, empowered to do meaningful projects that will document our lives as we move to the new century.
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