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From Riches to Rags

Depression-era photography ranges from documentary evidence of deprivation to modernist depictions of abundance
Barbara Tannenbaum, Curator of Photography
June 14, 2017

Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama, 1936. Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975). Gelatin silver print, printed later; 23.7 x 18.4 cm. Wishing Well Fund, 1973.120. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exuberance, affluence, and luxury of the Jazz Age came to a screeching halt when the American stock market crashed on October 29, 1929. The decade-long Great Depression followed, marked by massive unemployment and precipitous declines in personal income, tax revenue, business profits, and trade. Adding to the calamity, the Great Plains experienced a major drought and dust storms in the mid-1930s, causing tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms and become migrants. Drawing entirely from the museum’s superb holdings of early 20th-century photography, From Riches to Rags examines the choices photographers made during that time of extreme social upheaval and economic distress.

Documentary photography, which records what is before the camera, was uniquely suited to offer direct visual testimony of people’s distress and hardships. Recognizing that power, in 1935 the federal government began hiring socially concerned photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein to depict the suffering of rural and urban populations. Their photographs, disseminate  in magazines, books, and government publications, proved effective at drumming up support for government aid programs.

One of the most iconic images of the Depression is Walker Evans’s 1935 portrait of 27-year-old Allie Mae Burroughs, an Alabama sharecropper’s wife and mother of four. Despite their poverty, the Burroughs family did not qualify for government assistance. Ironically, Evans had been photographing in the area for the government, but shot the Burroughs family to illustrate an article by James Agee for Fortune, a deluxe business magazine. The project grew too large for Fortune, so in 1941 Agee and Evans turned it into a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Both Burroughs’s portrait and the book are included in the exhibition.

Paradoxically, the decade of deprivation saw an explosion in the use of photography in advertising with the advent of the American picture magazine, specifically Life in 1936. Even in the Depression’s worst year, 75 percent of the American workforce was employed and buying necessities, if not luxuries. Eye-catching advertising photographs helped companies compete for the diminished pool of consumer dollars. There is no hint of privation in the ads. Elegantly gowned women primp in Edward Steichen’s Fashion Ad for Coty Lipstick, 1934–35. The delectable still lifes of food and kitchenware by Paul Outerbridge depict abundance. These lifestyles were out of reach for many Americans, but thumbing through a magazine and fantasizing cost nothing.

Dunes, Oceano, 1936. Edward Weston (American, 1886–1958). Gelatin silver print; 19.1 x 24.1 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund, 2001.92. © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

There were individuals whose lifestyles were hardly impacted by the Depression. Alfred Stieglitz, scion of a wealthy family, was able to dedicate his life to art without the need to earn a living. He was one of the key figures in the campaign to recognize photography as a full-fledged art form, equal to painting and sculpture in its capacity for creativity, 
personal expression, and formal exploration. In 1934 a photography exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art included 10 of Stieglitz’s photographs. Purchased by the museum the following year, they became the first photographs to enter the collection.

Among them is a close-up of the hand of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, Stieglitz’s wife, as she lovingly caresses the spare tire of a Ford V-8 convertible coupe. The image was made on the occasion of her reunion with her husband—and her much beloved car—after an extended convalescence following a nervous breakdown. O’Keeffe had paid for the car herself. Not just a glossy object of consumer desire, it symbolized independence and freedom.

Georgia O’Keeffe—Hand and Wheel, 1933. Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946). Gelatin silver print; 24.2 x 19.2 cm. Gift of Cary Ross, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1935.99. © 2009 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Stieglitz’s photograph is emblematic of modernism, a photographic movement characterized by sharp focus and an emphasis on the abstract values of compositional structure. While documentary photographers tackled contemporary social issues, the modernists tended toward timeless subjects such as portraiture, landscape, nature, and even abstraction. Ansel Adams found breathtakingly magical scenes in the wilderness. Edward Weston’s pictures of the dunes near Oceano, California, verge on pure patterns of dark and light. These artists chose not to depict the suffering and chaos that surrounded them. Instead, they created idyllic, ordered worlds, or at least more perfect versions of external reality.

Some photographers in the 1930s felt an obligation to document contemporary society, while others were moved to produce art for art’s sake, or art that offered spiritual elevation or aesthetic pleasure. These approaches were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes temperament dictated the artist’s choice, sometimes the ability to make a living. Like our own complex and unsettled era, the 1930s seemed to call for and appreciate multiple styles of and approaches to photography.