The Jazz Age gave way to the Great Depression on October 29, 1929, when the American stock market crashed. The following decade was marked by massive unemployment, deepened by a drought that created the Dust Bowl, which transformed tens of thousands of farm families into migrants. Drawing from the museum’s superb holdings of early twentieth-century photography, From Riches to Rags examines photographers’ responses to the social upheaval and economic distress that characterized American life in the 1930s.
The documentary approach, which records what is before the camera, was uniquely suited to offer direct visual testimony of people’s lives. Socially concerned photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein were hired by the federal government and magazines to capture images of the urban and rural poor that would elicit support for aid programs. Not all 1930s portraits project such a dire outlook. People who were still working might dress up in their Sunday best to pose for the local portrait photographer, whether James Van Der Zee in Harlem or Mike Disfarmer in Heber Springs, Arkansas, hoping for a rosier record of their lives and times.
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. When unemployment reached 25 percent during the Depression’s worst year, 75 percent of the American workforce was employed and buying necessities, if not luxuries. Eye-catching advertising photographs by Edward Steichen, Paul Outerbridge, and other professionals helped companies compete for the diminished pool of consumer dollars. The images ranged in style from posed tableaux to still lifes that verge on abstraction.
Modernist photographers used the medium as a vehicle for personal expression. They tended to focus on timeless subjects including landscape, cityscapes, and nature, as well as on formalist exploration. Their pictures offered visions of a more orderly and idyllic world, be it a rapturous wilderness scene by Ansel Adams, a rhythmic design of agave plants by Imogen Cunningham, or a portrait by Alfred Stieglitz of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, caressing her beloved shiny Ford coupe. The museum’s photography collection originated during the Depression; several of the works by Alfred Stieglitz that inaugurated it in 1935 are on view.