As our economy reels in recession, the era of the Great Depression and New Deal takes on new immediacy. These days, in news media more often characterized by historical amnesia, pundits frequently invoke the 1930s, mining the past for cautionary tales, moral narratives, or exemplary stories. And many of these accounts are accompanied-in print, on air, and online-with iconic pictures and footage of breadlines, Hoovervilles, and other images of hard times. These images often function as a sort of visual shorthand, or the visual equivalent of a sound-bite about the 1930s, and students may need assistance in deciphering their meaning.
Let’s begin our month-long exchange by considering images showing the impact of the Depression. Work-or lack of it-is one key theme of the period. Unemployment devastated families and communities, and as the crisis grew Americans saw pictures of hardship in their daily newspapers and favorite magazines. Some documented the effects of the Depression, some commented on it. We can begin by asking the sort of probing questions that will help students dig under the surfaces of these pictures.
This is an example of a photograph that tells a story:
We can begin by asking students about what’s happening in the picture. Why do you think it was taken? Who are the intended viewers?
With a forty-three-year career as a political cartoonist, ending with his death in 1949, John T. McCutcheon was long known for preferring amusement over harsh criticism in his cartoons (“I always enjoyed drawing a type of cartoon which might be considered a sort of pictorial breakfast food,” he once wrote). This cartoon, published while Herbert Hoover was still president and as the Depression deepened, seems to be an exception to McCutcheon’s usual approach. After Roosevelt was elected, McCutcheon’s cartoons departed from the widespread editorial attack on the New Deal by the overwhelmingly conservative ranks of newspaper publishers, including his own Chicago Tribune.
Cartoons rely on visual images to convey their meaning. This one has almost no text in the three panels. How does the cartoonist use images to tell the story? How does the caption complete the editorial?
Imogen Cunningham: The Private Gallery (9 photographs). Born in 1883, Imogen Cunningham was a photographer whose work influenced the recognition of photography as an art. She studied the chemistry of photography at the University of Washington, and in 1910 opened her own studio in Seattle, Washington. She is best known for her photographs of botanical and industrial subjects, and her portrait work. The portraits shown here might be seen as a bridge from her formal studio work to her later interest (in the 1940s) to documentary street photography.
This series offers an opportunity to get students to think about how photographs are composed. What’s in the background? What’s the effect of documenting unemployment through individual portraits (compared to the first photo of unemployed men in a soup line)? One of these photographs shows a man sleeping under a sign, “No thorofare”-this was a common visual device in photographs of poverty, using advertising or other signs as an ironic comment on the subject of the photograph.
Dorothea Lange, best known for her haunting portrait “Migrant Mother,” was born in 1895 and learned photography in New York City. She moved to San Francisco in 1919 where she opened her own studio. She turned from studio work to documentary photography during the 1930s. Lange worked for the Resettlement Administration, soon renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
The FSA sought to improve the desperate conditions of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, and its efforts often drew fire from conservatives outraged by projects like agricultural collectives and government-subsidized cooperatives. Its most influential work was its documentary photography.
The FSA provides a fascinating case history in the politics of visual images. Part of the New Deal’s public relations work, the photography unit sought to document the plight of rural Americans and the successes of New Deal programs designed to respond to them. The photographs were circulated through press releases and exhibits organized around the country, an ambitious effort intended to educate Americans about rural poverty and to move them to support New Deal programs designed to address it. Under the direction of Roy Stryker, the photography unit eventually broadened its mandate, seeking to become a source of comprehensive documentation of less known or disappearing aspects of American life. Influential in its own time, documentary photography of the New Deal has had a profound effect on later generations too. In many ways our view of the Great Depression has been formed by this body of work.
How does the photographer use this composition to make a comment about the period? What does the billboard sign add to her story?
Forced off the land by drought, unemployment, and loss of farm tenancy, many rural Americans took to the road in search of work elsewhere. Lange and others documented makeshift camps lacking basic necessities.
What do you see in the foreground of this picture? How does it provide a comment on the situation of the human figures in it?
The automobile has long been a symbol of American prosperity, individualism, and freedom. How do the cars in this picture function? How does the composition of this photograph, with two cars framing the tent, tell its story?
I look forward to reading and responding to your comments about what is revealed in these and other Great Depression images and how they can be used in teaching.