Picturing the Century

Portfolio: George W. Ackerman

During a nearly 40-year career with the Department of Agriculture, George W. Ackerman (1884-1962) estimated that he took over 50,000 photographs. Ackerman began working as a photographer for the Bureau of Plant Industry in 1910 at a salary of $900 a year. In 1917 he moved to the Federal Extension Service, and in that position, he traveled around the country photographing rural life. His photographs appeared in many private and Government agricultural publications, although they were not usually credited to him.

Today, many of Ackerman's photographs fill us with nostalgia for a simpler time, but this was not the photographer's intention. Instead, Ackerman was striving to show the improvements and progress that had come to the American farm in the 20th century. The rural life seen in his photographs is comfortable. Farmers are contented and prosperous people who face the future with confidence. They use the latest laborsaving devices and techniques. They and their neatly dressed wives and children enjoy modern conveniences and social amenities. Even amidst the Great Depression, Ackerman's photographs continued in this optimistic vein, one that contrasts sharply with the grim images of rural poverty taken by other Federal photographers. He later recalled that he tried "to paint the rural scene as I saw it, modern and up-to-date in many respects."

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