Iconic Photographers of the Great Depression

Lately I’ve been studying photographic styles from the masters of the trade.  It is amazing what this people did with cameras that were not as powerful as the ones we have today.

Through their rudimentary tools they captured what was happening around them.  Specifically I’m talking about the following classic photographers:  Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and Russell Lee.

Their remarkable work captured the characters that lived through the financial and social tragedy of the Great Depression.

“In October 1929 the stock market crashed, wiping out 40 percent of the paper values of common stock. Even after the stock market collapse, however, politicians and industry leaders continued to issue optimistic predictions for the nation’s economy. But the Depression deepened, confidence evaporated and many lost their life savings.By 1933 the value of stock on the New York Stock Exchange was less than a fifth of what it had been at its peak in 1929. Business houses closed their doors, factories shut down and banks failed. Farm income fell some 50 percent. By 1932 about one out of every four Americans was unemployed.”

By 1933 millions of Americans were out of work. Bread lines were a common sight in most cities. Hundreds of thousands roamed the country in search of food, work and shelter. ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’went the refrain of a popular song.”

Between 1932 and 1935, farm income increased by more than 50 percent, but only partly because of federal programs. During the same years that farmers were being encouraged to take land out of production—displacing tenants and sharecroppers—a severe drought hit the Great Plains states, significantly reducing farm production. Violent wind and dust storms ravaged the southern Great Plains in what became known as the ‘Dust Bowl,’ throughout the 1930s, but particularly from 1935 to 1938.

Crops were destroyed, cars and machinery were ruined, people and animals were harmed. Approximately 800,000 people, often called ‘Okies,’ left Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma during the 1930s and 1940s. Most headed farther west to the land of myth and promise, California. The migrants were not only farmers, but also professionals, retailers and others whose livelihoods were connected to the health of the farm communities. California was not the place of their dreams, at least initially. Most migrants ended up competing for seasonal jobs picking crops at extremely low wages.

Below,  I have inserted a brief introduction of four photojournalist who roamed the rural areas of the United States capturing scenes about the people affected by the economic mayhem.

Dorothea Lange.  Dorothea Lange was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  Lange’s photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography.

Dorothea Lange atop an automobile in California. The car is a 1933 Ford Model C, 4 door Wagon. The camera is a Graflex 5×7 Series D. Credit: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.
Portrait shows Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as “Migrant Mother”. Credit: Wikipedia Encyclopedia

The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”  In the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country. Lange’s image of a supposed migrant pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson, and her family has become an icon of resilience in the face of adversity. However, it is not universally accepted that Florence Thompson was a migrant pea picker. In the book Photographing Farm Workers in California (Stanford University Press, 2004), author Richard Steven Street asserts that some scholars believe Lange’s description of the print was “either vague or demonstrably inaccurate” and that Thompson was not a farm worker, but a Dust Bowl migrant. Nevertheless, if she was a “Dust Bowl migrant”, she would have left a farm as most potential Dust Bowl migrants typically did and then began her life as such. Thus any potential inaccuracy is virtually irrelevant.

Walker Evans.  Walker Evans was an American photographer best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting the effects of the Great Depression.

Alabama Tenant Farmer, 1936. Credit: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.
Evans’s photo of Allie Mae Burroughs, a symbol of the Great Depression. Credit: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.

Russell Lee.  Russell Lee was an American photographer and photojournalist best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  His technically excellent images documented the ethnography of various American classes and cultures.

Conversation at the General Store, near Jeanerette, Louisiana, 1938. Credit: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.
Resting farmer, Crowley, LA. Credit: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.

Ben Shahn.  Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist.  Together with his colleagues Walter Evans and Dorothea Lange he roamed and documented the American south during the Great Depression.

Photograph of a sailor taken by Shahn in Jackson Square, New Orleans, 1935. Credit: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.

The problems of the Great Depression were further increased by the weather phenomenon known as the Dust Bowl.  The Dust Bowl, also known as the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the United States and Canadian prairies during the 1930s; severe drought and a failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion (the Aeolian Processes) caused the phenomenon. The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40, but some regions of the high plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years

The Dust Bowl forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many of these families, who were often known as “Okies” because so many of them came from Oklahoma, migrated to California and other states to find that the Great Depression had rendered economic conditions there little better than those they had left.

Author John Steinbeck, borrowing closely from field notes taken by Farm Security Administration (FSA) worker and author Sanora Babb wrote Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) about migrant workers and farm families displaced by the Dust Bowl.

On September 25, 2008, there was a similar social and economic havoc when Lehman Brothers went belly up in Wall Street.  This time the whole world was on the brink of total economic and social annihilation.  Even to this day, the effects are still felt in countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece and others.  But that’s a story for another time.


6 thoughts on “Iconic Photographers of the Great Depression”

  1. Their photos are amazing and they were able to do that with the equipment that we’d consider rudimentary and outdated. I’ve actually seen some of Dorothea Lange’s photos somewhere before. Thank you, for highlighting their work and history of a really hard time in the US.

    1. Morning Barbara:

      I scratch my head trying to understand how these photojournalists could shoot such outstanding shots with very simple and cumbersome photographic tools. Their shots are absolutely amazing. Even our smartphones are more powerful than the tools they used in those early days.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog post.



    1. I saw several of the equipments Ansel Adams used to take pictures of Yosemite National Park. It took passion, dedication and persistence to accomplish what these classic American photographers came up with.



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