kottke.org posts about Great Depression
Yale has made 170,000 Library of Congress photos of the US from 1935 to 1945 available online, searchable and sortable in many different ways.
In order to build support for and justify government programs, the Historical Section set out to document America, often at her most vulnerable, and the successful administration of relief service. The Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) produced some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression and World War II and included photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein who shaped the visual culture of the era both in its moment and in American memory. Unit photographers were sent across the country. The negatives were sent to Washington, DC. The growing collection came to be known as "The File." With the United State's entry into WWII, the unit moved into the Office of War Information and the collection became known as the FSA-OWI File.
The Dust Bowl is a four-hour documentary by Ken Burns airing on PBS starting this weekend.
The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the "Great Plow-Up," followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Vivid interviews with twenty-six survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance. It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us -- a lesson we ignore at our peril.
You can watch the first five minutes of the film on the PBS site.
For her project My Pie Town, Debbie Grossman modified Depression-era photos to depict all-female families.
Joan Myers' biography of Doris Caudill (Doris is in many of the pictures), Pie Town Woman, describes her husband, Faro, as less than helpful on the homestead. I had downloaded a portrait of Doris and Faro from the Library of Congress website, and because it was so high-resolution, it occurred to me that I had enough pixels to work with that I could alter the image. I removed Faro, and I loved the opportunity to look at Doris on her own and imagine a different life for her. I thought it would be fun to remake the whole town in a way that reflected my own family, and I imagined a Pie Town filled with women.
The main reason for doing so was to give us the unusual experience of getting to see a contemporary idea of family (female married couples as parents, for example) as if it were historical. But I am also very interested in using Photoshop to create imaginary or impossible images-this is something I have done in other work as well.
In his newest multipart essay for the NY Times, Errol Morris examines evidence of photo manipulations by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, including Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange. Were they dispassionate observers of American life in the 1930s or employees after a certain type of story?
If one can imagine the political animosity that would have been generated if, as part of the current stimulus package, President Obama introduced a national documentary photography program, then it is possible to understand the opposition that the F.S.A. faced. Fiscal conservatives did not want to see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on relief, let alone a government photography program, of all things.
With the Great Depression further removed from today than the Civil War was then, it's difficult to imagine what a contemporary depression might look like.
Much of a modern depression would unfold in the domestic sphere: people driving less, shopping less, and eating in their houses more. They would watch television at home; unemployed parents would watch over their own kids instead of taking them to day care. With online banking, it would even be possible to have a bank run in which no one leaves the comfort of their home.
In a deep and sustained downturn, home prices would likely sink further and not rise, dimming the appeal of homeownership, a large part of suburbia's draw. Renting an apartment -- perhaps in a city, where commuting costs are lower -- might be more tempting. And although city crime might increase, the sense of safety that attracted city-dwellers to the suburbs might suffer, too, in a downturn. Many suburban areas have already seen upticks in crime in recent years, which would only get worse as tax-poor towns spent less money on policing and public services.
While working for the FDR administration in 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange took the following photograph:
You've likely seen it before...it's called Migrant Mother and it's one of the more famous American photos. When she took the photo, Lange neglected to note the woman's name (or other details) so her identity remained anonymous while the photo went on to become a symbol of the Great Depression. In the late 1970s, Florence Owens Thompson revealed herself to be the woman in the photo after she wrote a letter to her local paper saying that she didn't like the image. In an AP story about the ensuing flap, Thompson stated:
I wish she hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."
In addition to not taking her subject's name, Lange got something else wrong. Thompson and her family weren't typical Depression migrants at all; they'd been living in California for almost 10 years. Like all photographs, Migrant Mother is neither truth nor fiction but somewhere in-between.
I came across this striking photo by Margaret Bourke-White the other day:
It's a photo of a bread line during the Louisville Flood in 1937. The 1937 flood was one of the worst floods ever to occur in the Ohio River Valley:
In January of 1937, rains began to fall throughout the Ohio River Valley, eventually triggering what is known today as the "Great Flood of 1937". Overall, total precipitation for January was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. [...] The Weather Bureau reported that total flood damage for the entire state of Kentucky was 250 million dollars, which was an incredible sum in 1937. Another flood of this magnitude would not be seen in the Ohio River Valley until 60 years later.
A diary from Mama Bondurant provides a glimpse into what the flood was like:
January 22---This is another terrible day. The water is still rising and we hear distress cries everywhere. I have tired all day to get West Point, but it is still under water. Jim came home for a little while but went back to Camp Knox to assist in placing flood sufferers from West Point. It is so bad outside. Rain has turned to sleet. Electricity is gone. No lights or radio.
Working as a photographer for Life magazine, Bourke-White also took this iconic photo of Gandhi and his spinning wheel.
Out of a recent conversation popped this interesting question: who was the first superhero? After a short discussion and a few guesses (Superman, Batman, etc), it was agreed that this might be the most perfect question to ask the internet in the long history of questions.
The earliest superhero I could find reference to was Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, four years before Superman, who was probably the first popular superhero. Mandrake's super power was his ability to "make people believe anything, simply by gesturing hypnotically". Does anyone out there know of any superheroes who made an earlier media appearance?
There's a related question that has some bearing on the answer to the above question: what is a superhero? There have probably been books (or at least extensive Usenet threads) written on this topic, but a good baseline definition needs to acknowledge both the "super" and the "hero" parts. That is, the person needs to have some superhuman power or powers and has to fight the bad guys. But this basic definition is flawed. Superman is an alien, not human. Batman doesn't have any super powers...he's a self-made superhero like Syndrome in The Incredibles. Or can a superhero be anyone (human or no) that fights bad guys and is superior to normal heroes...the cream of the hero crop? And what about a costume or alter ego...are they essential for superheroism? These are all questions well-suited for asking the internet, so have at it: what's a good definition for a superhero?
And there's (at least) one more angle to this as well...where did the idea of the superhero come from? As Meg suggested to me at dinner last night, was there a cultural need for a superhero during a super-crisis like the Great Depression? Or did the idea evolve gradually from regular heros (cowboys, space cowboys, etc.) to heros who were magicians (with special powers...it's not that much of a stretch to imagine a magician possessing supernatural powers) to classic superheroes like Superman?