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The Great Depression and the Arts: Photography. The most enduring documentation of the Great Depression and also the one which created the dominant historical memory of the Great Depression is the work of photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration.

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the great depression and the arts photography
The Great Depression and the Arts: Photography
  • The most enduring documentation of the Great Depression and also the one which created the dominant historical memory of the Great Depression is the work of photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration.
  • FSA was created by the Department of Agriculture in 1937. The FSA and its predecessor, the Resettlement Administration (RA), were New Deal programs designed to assist poor farmers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
  • During its eight-year existence, the special photographic section of the RA and FSA created the 250,000 black-and-white documentary still photographs for which it is world-famous.
photography continued
Photography Continued
  • The photographic section is commonly seen as an attempt by the federal government to provide worthwhile employment for a small group of photographers who used their cameras with great artistry to portray the Great Depression in America
  • The photographs are prized as works of art and as a group are considered to be a national treasure.
  • Roy Stryker was the head of the photographic section in the RA and FSA from 1935-1942.
  • Stryker insisted that photographers utilize a relatively new photographic methodology called documentary. Documentary rejects photographic tricks, gimmicks, and what British film critic John Grierson called “the shimsham mechanics of the studio.”
  • The intention was to record real life as it was encountered by the photographer.
dorothea lange
Dorothea Lange
  • Here is one description of how photographer Dorothea Lange would operate:

She would walk through the field and talk to people, asking simple questions--what are you picking? . . . How long have you been here? When do you eat lunch? . . . I'd like to photograph you, she'd say, and by now it would be "Sure, why not," and they would pose a little, but she would sort of ignore it, walk around until they forgot us and were back at work.

  • Here is a crew of thirty-five Filipinos cutting and loading lettuce.
fiddlin bill henseley ashville north carolina photographer ben shahn
Fiddlin’ Bill Henseley, Ashville, North CarolinaPhotographer: Ben Shahn
african american boys on easter morning southside chicago illinois photographer russell lee
African-American boys on Easter morning, Southside, Chicago, IllinoisPhotographer: Russell Lee
shack of war veteran with view along nueces bay corpus christi texas photographer russell lee
Shack of war veteran with view along Nueces Bay. Corpus Christi, Texas.Photographer: Russell Lee
mr and mrs andrew lyman windsor locks connecticut photographer jack delano
Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Lyman. Windsor Locks, ConnecticutPhotographer: Jack Delano
photography during the great depression
Photography During the Great Depression
  • Despite the undeniable artistic merit of the photographic collection, its creation was not conceived as an art project
  • The FSA photography project was the first attempt by the federal government to provide a broad visual record of American society. The subject matter of the photography (ordinary workers, people of colour, women, rural areas, and poor folk) was also a significant departure from the “Great Men” or “Government in Action” shots that were common for government photography in earlier eras.
  • It was also the first systematic use of photography by the government for partisan purposes.
  • In order to convince the American people and the Congress of the need for reform, especially in the agricultural sector, still photographs that described the deplorable conditions in the countryside were produced and disseminated.
photography during the great depression14
Photography During the Great Depression
  • As Roy Stryker pointed out, “there were depressed areas, depressed peoples. Our basic concern was with agriculture – with dust, migrants, sharecroppers. Our job was to educate the city dweller to the needs of the rural population.”
  • Thus the FAS project mirrored the publicity blitz by General Hugh Johnson on behalf of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) Note: the blue eagle logo.
  • Many of the New Deal programs were highly criticized for being too socialist. In particular, communal farms, migrant labour camps, and suburban resettlement projects were considered to be communistic.
  • Further, Rexford Tugwell, the first director of the Resettlement Administration, had a collectivist vision that favoured a “farmer-worker alliance in [America] which will carry all before it.”
  • This scared business interests as well as conservatives. Tugwell came to be seen as Roosevelt’s resident Bolshevik and RA programs needed a good public relations spin.
photography during the great depression15
Photography During the Great Depression
  • Tugwell realized he would have to rely heavily on photographs to tell the story of the RA and so he hired Roy Stryker to start the RA/FSA’s photography section.
  • Thus, it is clear that the original inspiration and impetus for the photography project was political.
  • Photographers were well aware of the nature of their work:
    • “There was a feeling that you were in on something new and exciting, a missionary sense of dedication to the project…” – Arthur Rothstein
    • “We had a great social responsibility. We were dedicated to the idea that our lives can be improved, that man is the master of his environment, and that it’s possible for us to live a better life…” – Arthur Rothstein
  • One of the only African-American photographers for the FSA, Gordon Parks, recalled that he started working as a photographer to expose bigotry and remarked, “I have always felt as though I needed a weapon against evil.”
photography during the great depression16
Photography During the Great Depression
  • As a final demonstration of the political nature of the RA/FSA photography project, it should be noted that department policies changed over its existence from 1935-1942.
  • From 1935-1937, as the RA and under the direction of Tugwell, the photographs were more strident and focused on the misery and desperation of the Great Depression.
  • By 1938 the re-organization into the FSA had created a more bureaucratic and conservative environment. New FSA guidelines increasingly focused on depicting the health and vitality of farm life thanks to New Deal programs. This occurred despite the continuing desperate plight of many farm workers and to serve the changes in the government’s publicity needs.
  • In 1941, with the US entry into WWII, the photography came to focus primarily on urban areas. The photography section eventually became part of the Office of War Information.
was the ra fsa photography propaganda
Was the RA/FSA Photography Propaganda?
  • Propaganda can be defined as the organized dissemination of information and ideas for the purpose of influencing attitudes and behaviour.
  • Stryker and his photographers rejected the idea that their work was propaganda.
  • For Stryker, the fact that the photographs were truthful, accurate records of actual events, people, and places, and that they were unadorned and unmanipulated made them documentary.
  • Given the political climate of the 1930s and the massive use of manipulative and totalitarian propaganda by the fascist governments of Germany and Italy, as well as the communist government of the U.S.S.R., the FSA photography section was sensitive about the issue of propaganda.
was the ra fsa photography propaganda18
Was the RA/FSA Photography Propaganda?
  • Lastly, some contemporary art critics would resist the use of the term propaganda to describe the photographs because it would cheapen or deny their artistic merit.
  • Regardless of these points, the highly political and persuasive intent of the RA/FSA photography is undeniable. It was propaganda.
  • Michael Carlebach points out that the photography could be called a kind of democratic propaganda that was truthful and factual as well as both credible and necessary.
  • Carlebach argues that because the RA/FSA photography did not attempt to deceive the public, nor was it the only permitted public discourse on the New Deal, it was a legitimate function of government and assisted a liberal democracy.
  • Some academics argue that the Great Depression was one of the great creative periods in American history. During this turbulent decade numerous significant artistic contributions were made.
  • Common themes found in the literature of the period are: despair, poverty, corruption, strife between labour and management, the need to work together, and, finally, hope.
john steinbeck 1939
John Steinbeck (1939)
  • Grapes of Wrath won Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)
  • Of Mice and Men is a novella which tells the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers during the Great Depression in California.
  • While less directly connected to the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men still explores the issues surrounding the frustration of the American Dream.
they shoot horses don t they by horace mccoy 1935
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy (1935)
  • This novel tells the story of focuses on a diverse group of characters desperate
  • to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic emcee who urges them on to victory.
federal writers project
Federal Writers Project
  • The Federal Writers Project was one program within the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that aimed to fund written work and support writers during the Great Depression.
  • The FWP was created by Roosevelt in 1935 and their primary focus was compiling local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children's books and other works.
  • 6,600 people were employed by the FWP
  • Although the FWP did employ many working-class writers, there were very few African-Americans who had literary backgrounds that would enable them to get FWP jobs.
  • Although most of the written projects were non-political, many of the FWP staff supported organized labour and left-wing and social causes. This resulted in some FWP works being criticized or only being printed in small runs.
let us now praise famous men by james agee and walker evans 1941
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941)
  • The book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men grew out of an assignment the two men accepted in 1936 to produce a magazine article on the conditions among white sharecropper families in the U.S. South.
  • Agee and Evans spent eight weeks that summer researching their assignment, mainly among three white sharecropping families mired in desperate poverty. They returned with Evans' portfolio of stark images—of families with gaunt faces, adults and children huddled in bare shacks before dusty yards in the Depression-era nowhere of the deep south—and Agee's detailed notes.
federal theatre project
Federal Theatre Project
  • The Federal Theatre Project was another Works Progress Administration program created by Roosevelt in 1935.
  • The FTP's primary goal was employment of out-of-work artists, writers, and directors, with the secondary aim of entertaining poor families and creating relevant art.
  • One of the FTP’s most interesting production types was the Living Newspaper. Researchers-turned-playwrights clipped articles from newspapers about current events (often hot button issues like farm policy, syphilis testing, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and housing inequity) and then adapted them into plays intended to inform audiences.
  • Often these plays had overt progressive or left-wing themes.
federal theatre project25
Federal Theatre Project
  • For example, Triple-A Plowed Under, attacked the U.S. Supreme Court for killing an aid agency for farmers. These politically-themed plays quickly drew criticism from members of Congress.
  • Although the undisguised political invective in the Living Newspapers sparked controversy, they also proved popular with audiences.
  • Another positive legacy of the Federal Theatre Project was that it provided a starting point for theatre greats such as Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane).
the cradle will rock by marc blitzstein 1937
The Cradle Will Rockby Marc Blitzstein (1937)
  • The most famous production created by the FTP was the musical The Cradle Will Rock.
  • The musical is an allegory of corruption and corporate greed.
  • Set in "Steeltown, USA", it follows the efforts of Larry Foreman to unionize and otherwise combat wicked businessman Mr. Mister. Blitzstein portrays a whole panoply of societal figures: Mr. Mister's vicious, outwardly genteel philanthropic wife and spoiled children, sell-out artists, poor shopkeepers, immigrant families, a faithless priest, and an endearing prostitute named Moll.
the cradle will rock by marc blitzstein 193727
The Cradle Will Rockby Marc Blitzstein (1937)
  • In an interesting controversy, the production was shut down due to "budget cuts" within the Federal Theatre Project—though it was widely believed that this was instead because of accusations of pro-communism.
  • The original theatre was padlocked and surrounded by armed servicemen, ostensibly to prevent anyone from stealing props or costumes, as all of this was considered U. S. Government property. They even impounded leading man Howard Da Silva's toupee.
  • On the spur of the moment, Blitzstein rented the much larger New Century Theatre and a piano, and planned for Blitzstein to sing/play/read the entire musical to the sold out house which had grown larger by inviting people off the street to attend for free. Blitzstein encouraged cast members to say their lines from the audience, to exercise their right of free speech.
the cradle will rock by marc blitzstein 193728
The Cradle Will Rockby Marc Blitzstein (1937)
  • During the rest of the performance, various actors joined in with Blitzstein and performed the entire musical from the house. Actors sang across the theatre to one another.
  • Many who attended the performance thought it to be one of the most moving theatrical experiences of their lives. Performances to this day rarely use elaborate sets or an orchestra, instead preferring a spare set and single piano in homage to this event.
the erasure of great depression literature
The Erasure of Great Depression Literature
  • Miles Orvell, professor of English and American Studies at Temple University argues that the literature of the Depression has been largely dismissed from the cultural record.
  • Because of their overt progressive and left-wing themes, the post-World War II climate resulted in the branding of most works of Great Depression literature as the work of the ‘communist devil’.
  • Orvell supports this contention by pointing out that a standard 1500-page textbook on American literature gives only 3 pages to Great Depression era literature. This is a dramatic example of the omission of literary creativity from the time period.
the movie industry
The Movie Industry
  • Despite the crushing poverty of the Depression, 60-70 million Americans still packed into theatres each week.
  • By the 1930’s Americans had a new identity as consumers.
  • The USA had become a commercialized society and the movie industry responded by carefully catering to consumer tastes.
  • Depression-films often reinstated the mythical values of individualism, classlessness and progress.
  • Americans came to films in search of escape from their arduous and hopeless lives.
  • “During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles”– President Franklin Roosevelt
movie industry
Movie Industry
  • Thus, gangster films, musicals, and screwball comedies were all very popular.
  • But, at the same time, films in the 1930’s did address the realities of the Depression. Popular musicals were no longer as idealistic as during the 1920’s and instead portrayed more realist visions of aspiration and attainment.
lost horizon
Lost Horizon
  • This classic escapist film tells the story of a group of travelers who find a utopian society in the Himalaya mountains.
  • A small group of airplane passengers crash deep in the Himalayas and are rescued by Chang and taken to Shangri-la, an idyllic valley sheltered from the cold. The contented inhabitants are led to the mysterious High Lama.
  • Initially anxious to return to "civilization", most of the newcomers grow to love the place.
  • The protagonist decides to leave after a conflict with the other travelers, but eventually returns to Shangri-la.
modern times
Modern Times
  • Political or commentary films also were popular during the 1930’s.
  • Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin (1936)
  • Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is the victim of unemployment, hunger and the coercive state, yet he maintains a sense of optimism – the film concludes with the Tramp and his love interest strolling hand-in-hand down a long winding highway.
  • In Chaplin’s version of the depression the villain appears to be automation and mechanization which have sacrificed human values to the god of efficiency.
  • Thus, Chaplin seems to champion the brotherhood of man while questioning some of the capitalist assumptions of Roosevelt’s reform and recovery program at a time in 1936 when the New Deal had restored some hope for many Americans.
the grapes of wrath directed by john ford 1940
The Grapes of Wrath directed by John Ford (1940)
  • Considered by many to be the quintessential film of the Great Depression
  • Based on the John Steinbeck novel of 1939, the film was released well after the worst chapter of the depression had passed.
  • Ford’s film is more conservative than the original novel, as it gives more attention to the consensus-building role of Ma Joad, and less time to the radical speeches of Tom Joad. Also, the story concentrates on the breakdown of an American family rather than on the breakdown of the American socioeconomic system.
  • Finally, a relief camp worker bares a striking resemblance to FDR.
  • Won 2 Oscars and was nominated for 5 others
  • The 1930s saw the development of an American consumer culture.
  • It was during the 1930s that the concepts of “American way of life” and “The American Dream” became identifiable concepts.
  • Radio played a central role in encouraging mass consumption
  • Soap Operas, one of the formats that originated in the 1930s, successfully turned home-making women into a mass audience who would be targeted by advertisers.
amos n andy
Amos 'n' Andy
  • Amos 'n' Andy was a situation comedy based on stereotypes of African-Americans and popular in the United States from the 1920s through the 1950s. The show began as one of the first radio comedy serials.
  • After the series was first broadcast in 1928, it grew in popularity and became a huge influence on the radio serials that followed. The program ran on radio as a nightly serial from 1928 until 1943
  • As early as 1930 the African-American community was critical of the program. Bishop W.J. Walls of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church wrote an article sharply denouncing Amos 'n' Andy, singling out the lower-class characterizations and the "crude, repetitious, and moronic" dialogue.
abbott and costello who s on first
Abbott and Costello – Who’s On First
  • In the 1930 movie Cracked Nuts, comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey examine a map of a mythical kingdom with dialogue like this: "What is next to Which." "What is the name of the town next to Which?" "Yes." In English variety halls (Britain's equivalent of vaudeville theatres), comedian Will Hay performed a routine in the early 1930s (and possibly earlier) as a schoolmaster interviewing a schoolboy named Howe who came from Ware but now lives in Wye. By the early 1930s, a "Baseball Routine" had become a standard bit for burlesque comics across the United States.
  • After they formally teamed up in burlesque in 1936, Abbott and Costello continued to hone the sketch. It was a big hit in 1937 when they performed the routine in a touring vaudeville revue called "Hollywood Bandwagon".
  • In February 1938, Abbott and Costello joined the cast of the The Kate Smith Hour radio program, and the sketch was first performed for a national radio audience that March
dick tracy
Dick Tracy
  • Based upon the classic comic book by Chester Gould, this detective mystery showed Tracy’s movement into the metropolis.
  • On the radio serial, the "good guys" were Dick Tracy, "protector of law and order," his sidekick Pat Patton, and Tracy's investigative team Junior Tracy and Tess Trueheart. The strip and show also starred bizarre villains, with such names as The Blank, Little Face Finney, Pruneface, The Brow and Shakey.
  • The program was heavy on scientific crime detection, using the lab to sift through clues, and ultra-modern inventive devices such as Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio.
  • The radio cases were always exciting, with plenty of trouble, cliff hanging and narrow escapes.
the lone ranger
The Lone Ranger
  • Although the Lone Ranger and Tonto head off into the sunset before anyone can thank them, they leave behind a sense that social responsibility, sincerity, and selflessness will endure.
  • Here we find a masked man whose understanding of human nature is as accurate as his knowledge of the local landscape--a man willing to face the outlaws lurking in the shadows of moral marginality
  • It’s also a familiar narrative of the white “saviour” aided by his stereotyped American Indian companion that glosses over the realities of racism and colonialism in the American west.
war of the worlds 1938
War of the Worlds (1938)
  • One episode in particular during the 1930s speaks to the power and centrality of radio as a medium of choice.
  • On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the cast of the Mercury Theatre on the Air presented their adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel War of the Worlds.
  • The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress.
  • Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a 'sustaining show' (i.e., it ran without commercial breaks), thus adding to the dramatic effect. Welles also played up the extended periods of silence to make it seem like a real news broadcast.
war of the worlds
War of the Worlds
  • A large scale panic resulted in confused citizens calling for emergency assistance and some small examples of rioting.
  • Americans in the 1930’s trusted radio as the primary medium for quick access to up-to-date news. Recall that they tuned for Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” and had become accustomed to the radio as a reliable medium.
  • As a result of the War of the Worlds broadcast many Americans were less likely to believe the veracity of radio news reports over the next few months.
the great depression and the arts a conclusion
The Great Depression and the Arts: A Conclusion
  • If you were to write about the Great Depression and the Arts, what would be the 3 most common themes that you would discuss?
  • Despair
  • Escapism
  • Hope