Finding: Source Material in the Archives of American Art

Ben Shahn

During the Great Depression, Ben Shahn—primarily a painter and printmaker—worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. For five dollars a day plus five cents per mile, he drove around the country documenting the everyday struggles of his fellow Americans. “Off I went; and, boy, that shook me up. I took a lot of pictures and photographed a lot and drew a lot. . . . I found realities there that I had no idea about,” recalled Shahn in a 1965 oral history interview with the Archives of American Art. He borrowed from the massive collection of photographs he took, as well as photographs by other FSA photographers, to create his political paintings and prints. For example, Shahn modeled at least two artworks, Beatitude (1952) and Epis (1969), on a striking 1936 image of a contemplative wheat farmer by Dorothea Lange.