Ups and Downs




5 minutes reading

The concepts ‘crisis’ and ‘photography’ immediately make me think of the way in which a number of famous photographers portrayed the 1930s in the united States. The role of the American government and the obstinacy of several considerable talents were crucial in this. But first, a story from my own family’s history.

My grandfather earned many billions. The peat-cutters in the Dutch province of Drenthe went on strike for a year and he went to work in Germany. Unfortunately, it was 1923: French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr and the German labourers and civil servants also went on strike out of protest. The German government continued to pay them, resulting in uncontrollable inflation. My grandfather came home in November with a wheelbarrow full of German banknotes. The price of a loaf of bread had by then risen to 201 billion Marks. Burning the banknotes gave off more heat than the coal that you could buy with them.

Six years later the Wall Street stock market crash marked the beginning of the first global crisis. Nearly everyone in the United States was affected by the recession, but the small farmers most of all. The agricultural sector had been facing problems for a while. President Roosevelt described the rural population as: ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.’ In his major plan to combat the depression, The New Deal, a new federal organisation, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), focused on improving the living conditions of the rural population. Poor farmers could access a sort of ‘microcredit’ (rehabilitation loans) from $250 to $600 dollars. And there were large migration projects to places where there was a greater chance of successful harvests. The vast majority of the American population found such plans ‘un-American’. In order to influence public opinion and to get members of Congress on board, the Information Division of the FSA was set up. Roy E. Stryker, head of the Historical Section, selected talented photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans and Ben Shahn to document the disastrous situation. The government used the photos, initially intended as instruction material, for exhibitions, infor- mational films and as press photos.

The icon of the FSA

The images that were taken under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration are kept in the Library of Congress in Washington. This is where thousands of scans of the negatives and prints by photographers including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange are housed. Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ has become the icon of the FSA and thus also of the crisis in rural America. Lange (1895-1965) trained as a photographer on the east coast, moved to California and in 1919 opened a portrait studio in San Francisco. When the effects of the crisis became visible, she left her studio in order to go and work on the street. Her portraits of the unemployed and homeless attracted attention and she was offered a job with the federal organisation Resettlement Administration (RA), the predecessor of the FSA. Florence Owens Thomson, the ‘Migrant Mother’, was 32 years old when Lange met her and a mother of seven children. She lived in a camp and ate frozen beans from the surrounding fields and the birds that the children caught. Twenty-five years later Lange said that Thomson did not ask any questions and cooperated without explanation, as if she realised that the photos could help her. The photographer found the situation so dire that something had to do be done immediately and sent two photos to the San Francisco News. Several days after they were published, food aid arrived for the migrant workers’ camp. Lange made this decision because at the time her photos were mostly used by the FSA as illustrations for government reports.

Department head Stryker believed, of course, that the photographers should work to further the policy, but Walker Evans, another great talent who took photos for the RA and FSA, gave precedence to his intuition, just like Lange. Evans (1903-1975) started working for the government in 1935. He came from artistic milieu and had lived in Paris for a year. Stryker was impressed by Evans’ systematic documentation of the crisis. Evans made lists of the subjects he wanted to photograph and Stryker used these lists for assignments undertaken by other photographers. His boss often did not know where Evans was and he made it clear to Stryker that he would not lend himself to bureaucratic inventories or propaganda. Evans' photos from that period were later exhibited by John Szarkowski, the legendary photography curator in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and gained worldwide recognition. Evans strived for simplicity and clarity in his photography. The maker seems to have practically disappeared in his ‘objective’, almost business-like photography. A simple image of a sober shed in desolate surroundings tells the whole story: Negro Cabin.

Publishing about the crisis

During time off from the FSA Evans made a reportage with the writer James Agee about sharecroppers in Alabama. It was an assignment for Fortune magazine, which ultimately published neither the text nor the photos. Their extensive documentary appeared in 1941 in book form: Let us now praise famous men, ‘... the book in which James Agee’s portrayal and the photographic brilliance of Walker Evans give short shrift to almost all social, religious and literary taboos in American society.’ Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) photographed victims of the drought in the Dust Bowl, the eroded agricultural areas in the heart of the United States. Together with writer Erskine Caldwell, who later became her husband, she published a remarkable book: You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). The Great Depression resulted in fascinating engaged photographs, taken by a former bohemian and two young women, to name just a few. A crisis thus also appears to offer opportunities. I am curious to see what our crisis will produce.