Dignity Vs. Despair: Dorothea Lange and Depression-Era Photographers, 1933-1941

After the stock market crash in 1929, the United States experienced a deep and long-lasting economic depression. The unemployment rate leapt from 3.2 percent in 1929 to over 25 percent in 1933. Fortunes were lost and many found themselves jobless and homeless. Contributing to the economic disaster was the destruction of countless farms due to drought and extreme soil erosion. Some stayed put on farms and starved. Others moved away to find work, found none, and starved. Others wandered the city streets and starved.

The government hired photographers to document the disaster — to show the need for federal aid and to prompt legislative action. The exhibition Dignity vs. Despair: Dorothea Lange and Depression-Era Photographers, 1933–1941 features work by five of those photographers: Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer.

Armed with shooting scripts written by their boss, Roy Stryker, the photographers made their way to rural areas of the country. His instructions were often direct: “Take a picture showing that the American highway is very often a more attractive place than the places Americans live.” Stryker’s vision for the project, however, was not one of sadness and despair but rather of dignity and resilience. “I have always believed that the American people have the ability to endure. That’s the feeling which comes through in those pictures. Every single one. Experts have said to me, oh no, that’s a face of despair. And I say, look again, you see the set of that chin. You see the way that mother stands. You see the straight line of that man’s shoulders. You see something in those faces that transcends misery.”

Dorothea Lange’s photographs are widely recognized for their almost palpable sense of compassion and empathy for her subjects. Photographing in the squalor of migrant labor camps in California, Lange felt that her lifelong limp, caused by childhood polio, was what made these portraits intimate. “People are kinder to you,” she said. “It puts you on a different level than if you go into a situation whole and secure . . . My acceptance, finally, of my lameness truly opened gates for me.”

Walker Evans was considered a “fine art” photographer who had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938. Working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), he took the fewest pictures over the longest time. They were worth the wait, though. In a beautifully spare and removed way, Evans conveyed the heartbreaking poverty of a family from Hale County, Alabama, without including any member of the family in the picture.

Former chemistry major Arthur Rothstein had no professional experience or artistic ambition. An ardent believer in “dedication for social improvement,” Rothstein found an acute individualism in the people he patiently waited to photograph at just the right moment. During a dust storm in Oklahoma, with the air so thick it was difficult to breathe, Rothstein turned to wave goodbye to a farmer and his sons. And with the last frame on his roll, he took the most iconic picture of his career.

Marion Post Wolcott was fiercely independent and wrote long, expressive letters to her boss, insisting that a woman could travel alone to photograph impoverished areas in the South. She was a beautiful woman, and it was once humorously stated that Wolcott’s photographs could be recognized “because the men are always leering at the camera.” Photographing the cultural impact of the tobacco industry, she noted: “[Farmers] can be found sleeping on the covered piles of tobacco in warehouses or in their trucks or on the floors of camp room.”

Born in Denmark, Peter Sekaer had an outsider’s view of America. Working for the United States Housing Authority, he documented the deplorable living conditions of city slums. Sekaer saw the documentary value of photography as something separate from art. “It is precisely in the impersonal, unfeeling technique of the camera that its value lies. From this comes its power to present reality more forcefully than any art medium.”

Together, these photographers and dozens of others created an image archive so powerful that it inspired John Steinbeck to write the book The Grapes of Wrath. But perhaps most importantly, they were successful in their primary purpose: to evoke a significant social change through the government aid programs they promoted.

–By Jane L. Aspinwall, Associate Curator, Photography

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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