Activities: Context Activities
Documentary Photography and Film
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 Dorothea Lange, Power Farming Displaces Tenants. Childress County, Texas Panhandle (1938), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-TO1-018281-C DLC].
In Official Images: New Deal Photography, Pete Daniel and Sally Stein ponder why so many photographs were taken and viewed during the depression era. They speculate, "Maybe people feeling deprived of material goods were attracted to those images that most closely resembled the look, surface, and solidity of things. Maybe, too, people feeling suddenly insecure about the future were comforted by photography's apparent matter-of-factness, even when the 'facts' were often distressing. Most likely, the appeal of photography contained contradictory impulses: to document and transform, to gain familiarity and distance" (viii). Whatever the reasons, the 1930s were one of the most photographically documented decades of all time.
As the country became more and more divided between those who favored social reform through government intervention and those who did not, documentary photography proved to be a powerful tool on the side of the reformers, revealing to a broad spectrum of the American public the horrific conditions brought on by both the depression and the Dust Bowl. Some of the documentary photographers' techniques found their way into literary works. For example, Steinbeck's use of documentary style in depicting people, places, and conditions during the depression contributed to the power of The Grapes of Wrath. And John Dos Passos used techniques he called "the camera eye" and the "newsreel" in Manhattan Transfer (1925) and in the USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel ; Nineteen Nineteen ; The Big Money ). Like the documentary photographers, these authors sought to represent the suffering and despair of struggling American workers and families.
Early photographic pioneers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Clarence White helped establish photography as an emerging art form, but social documentary photography actually began with Jacob Riis's depictions of New York City slums in the 1880s, collected in his book How the Other Half Lives. Riis's groundbreaking work was followed by Lewis Hines's images of child labor abuses in factories, mills, and mines. The work of Riis and Hines inspired later photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In 1935, the director of the FSA, Roy Stryker, hired a small corps of photographers to help inform the public of the brutal living and working conditions of displaced migrant workers. Among these photographers were Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans. Lange and her sociologist husband studied poor farmworkers in southern California. Lange would later travel throughout the country documenting the stories of displaced workers through her images. Shahn, better known as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) painter, also photographed the harsh realities of American farming life, while Evans teamed up with writer James Agee to document southern sharecroppers' lives in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
Documentary films also played an important role in depicting American life during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. Partly to communicate to the public what the administration was doing to alleviate the suffering, the Roosevelt administration sponsored a number of documentary films directed by Pare Lorentz. Among these is The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), the first film the United States government produced for commercial distribution. The Plow That Broke the Plains argues that a lack of ecological conservation and misuse of soil could have dire consequences. The film asserts that, by failing to practice land conservation and crop rotation, farmers themselves unwittingly created many of the conditions leading to the Dust Bowl. Many opponents of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation argued that this and other documentaries were designed to win approval for the broad range of social programs created by the government. Congress held a long and contentious debate about whether to fund the film, and some farmers protested the finished project. Today the film is hailed for its Whitmanesque free-verse script and its powerful and moving musical score. Lorentz's second Farm Security Administration film, The River, tells the story of the Mississippi River and its many tributaries. The film argues that, by controlling the river with dams, the country could avoid the disastrous seasonal flooding that stripped away valuable topsoil, put hundreds out of work, and destroyed homes and livestock.
Appreciated today primarily for their artistry and their sociological significance, the documentary photography and films of the Great Depression provide an important historical record of the cultural and economic changes that were occurring in the country during that time.
- Comprehension: What allowed the depression era to be so well documented?
- Comprehension: What were the benefits of government-sponsored documentation of conditions in the country during the depression?
- Context: How does the stark realism of these depression-era photographs relate to works by Bulosan, Steinbeck, and Viramontes?
- Context: Compare the depression-era Dust Bowl photographs in the archive with pictures from contemporary newspaper articles about poverty (the Associated Press Web site is a good source for such images). Do the depression-era photographs have a distinctive style? Do the contemporary photographs seem more or less powerful to you than their depression-era counterparts? What accounts for these differences?
- Exploration: A documentary is a work, such as a film or television program, that presents political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner. Documentaries often include photographs, news footage, or interviews and are typically accompanied by narration. Think about photographs or documentaries that you have seen that help illustrate an era, a decade, a cause, or a movement. Search the archive, the Internet, or magazines, especially newsmagazines, for these definitive photographs, and put together a collection. You might focus on the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s; the civil rights movement or Vietnam War protests; the women's liberation movement or the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. What about these collected photos helps convey a political or social message? How can the viewer judge whether that message is objective and accurate?
 Marion Post Wolcott, Rex Theatre for Colored People. Leland, Mississippi Delta (1944),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-052508-D].
Photograph of front of all-black movie theater in the South. Blacks and whites attended separate theaters and other civic facilities in the South. In the North, African Americans were separated from white audiences for movies, plays, and music by more informal social codes of segregation.
 Dorothea Lange, Power Farming Displaces Tenants. Childress County, Texas Panhandle (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-TO1-018281-C DLC].
Alternately titled "Tractored Out." Mechanization made large farmers wealthy, but left small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers without jobs. The rising use of machines instead of manual labor, coupled with drought and falling crop prices during the Great Depression, left many farmers homeless.
 Arthur Rothstein, Eroded Land, Alabama (c. 1930s),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [Photographs: FSA: Weather].
Farmer stands outside house, surveying eroded fields. Rothstein began his photography career while at Columbia University. After graduation, he became first staff photographer for the Farm Security Administration. He is mainly known for his Dust Bowl images. He went on to be a photographer for and director of Look magazine.
 Marion Post Wolcott, Picking Cotton Outside Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030629-M3].
Impoverished Mississippi farm worker harvesting cotton. Wolcott was a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration; her poignant photos strengthened support for many New Deal programs. The conflict between sharecroppers and landowners is depicted in William Faulkner's "Barn Burning."
 Dorothea Lange, White Sharecropper Family, Formerly Mill Workers in the Gastonia Textile Mills. When the Mills Closed Down Seven Years Ago, They Came to This Farm Near Hartwell, Georgia (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018147-C DLC].
The less glamorous side of rural southern life; a white share-cropping family seated on the porch of their cabin. This family is an example of the poorer, "everyday people" that writers such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty depicted.
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