NOT DEPRESSED IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION

Farmers in town, Alabama, 1936

Dorothea Lange

Farmers in town, Alabama, 1936,

Library of Congress Photo

This is such an unusual Lange photo. The people look -if not prosperous- well dressed, not in transit, not in trouble, not oppressed by The Depression.

Also, the women are sitting. It also shows a lack of real interaction between the photographer and subject. Lange asked, it appears, if it was OK to take the photograph, they, reluctantly (I think) said yes, and her husband (I think), just off camera left, does not leave the scene, protectively.

More importantly, what was Lange doing?

It seems, by the young daughter’s reaction, that Lange was performing, squeezing out something from the scene, trying to get a response, trying for animation if not insight. Was she “clowning?” Maybe, a little bit. Was she saying, “You look great.” Perhaps. Sometimes a subject is “whole,” it needs nothing except for the photographer to not get in the way. Sometimes, the subject needs coaxing. Sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. It appears that Lange was trying hard to evoke empathy. All three members of this family appear to have a different reaction: The father acts as a guardian, the daughter tries to please. The mother endures, a kind of buffer between the father’s wariness and the daughter’s pleased-to-be-acknowledged winsomeness.

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BODY LANGUAGE

BRUSH HOGS

Mydans’ Caption:

“Migrant workers like this man whom I

found living with his family by the side of the road

near Raymondsville, Texas, in 1937, were called

bush-hogs.” Photo by Carl Mydans

Narrative by Bruce Berman

Almost always, when photo researchers and academic scholars refer to a Dorothea Lange photograph with people, they mention the “body language” that Lange so brilliantly captured. Usually they mention that Lange had Polio when she was a child and attribute this occurrence to her ability to “read” her subject’s body language.

This is puzzling to most aficianados of good photography, especially photographers themselves.

What good  photo reportage doesn’t recognize their subject’s “body language?”

Further, as any photographer knows, most if not all photographers who work in the world of photographing strangers, use their own body language as a sort of introduction card. How else do you “break the ice?”

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DANCING IN PLACE

MIGRANT PICKER

Waiting for Work: “Ex-tenant farmer from Texas,

came to work in the fruit and vegetable harvests.”

Coachella Valley, California,

by Dorothea Lange, 1937

Dorothea Lange, as always, was interested in more than the facts of a situation. She wanted intimacy with “the other.” This man, obviously wary, is relaxed enough to put up his foot, a sure sign of trust. The captioning of the photo -hers- speaks volumes. He had had a station in life, even though it was rented. Now he only had his truck, his labor, his -and his family (background in the shadows)- and his footlocker full belongings.

It appears, as well, he still had his dignity.

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RUSSELL LEE: A “PRETTY” MOMENT

RussellLee41

April 1942. “Hollywood, California. Girl on the street.”

Photo by Russell Lee for the Office of War Information (OWI)

What do we know about this photo?

He used a Rollieflex camera (the square negative).

It was downtown L.A.

We know the Admiral theater was still A theater showing first run movies (Casablanca?).

It was a warm day (jacket in hand).

She’d already been traveling (tag on the suitcase).

Lee was doing the original “street photography (no interaction).”

They -he and her- were standing at 1645 Vine Street (http://bit.ly/2aO5FYf).

The Depression was not over but for OWI photographers it was out-of-sight. The new theme was America The Healthy.

Lee appreciated the “pretty” as well as the depraved (and that was consistent. His Depression-era photos all hint at the positive).

Still photography “sticks,” freezes moments in time, forever, and perusing them is better than fine wine: the “taste” can last forever.

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ARTHUR ROTHSTEIN: FSA, OWI AND BEYOND

 

Farmer and sons in dust storm, Oklahoma, 1936.

Farmer and sons, Oklahoma, 1936

by Arthur Rothstein. (LOC)

Article by Bruce Berman

Arthur Rotstein was one of the first photographers hired by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) in 1936, although his first job there was not to shoot but to create a darkroom for the newly formed Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA). Rothstein was the first photographer sent out by Roy Stryker, the visionary behind the FSA photo section and an  economist-turned-editor who headed the Photo Unit. Rothstein had been a student of Stryker’s at Colombia University where Stryker taught and worked with his colleague Rex Tugwell who later helped form the Resettlement Administration and was an insider in FDR’s New Deal planning.

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JOHN VACHON AND MARILYN

 Marilyn and John Vachon, 1953
Marilyn photographed by John Vachon during location shooting for River Of No Return in August 1953
Text by Bruce Berman, Editor

In 1936 John Vachon was a “late” FSA photographer. His original job was to catalog other photographer’s images. He was, at 21,  a “filing clerk,” for the FSA library and had little intention of being a photographer. He needed a job.

By 1937, Vachon had become completely familiar with the FSA, its Director, Roy Stryker and the works of the of the FSA photographers.

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MARION POST WOLCOTT: DEPTH AND CONCERN

 

PHOTO BY: Marion Post Wolcott Vegetable workers migrants waiting after work to be paid Near Homestead Florida 1939, FSA

Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

Vegetable workers-migrants, waiting to be paid

near Homestead Florida 1939 (photograph/LOC)

Marion Post Wolcott was one of the later Farm Security Farm Security Administration ( FSA) photographers and went on to be one of the Office of War Information photographers (OWI) under the direction of her former boss, at FSA, Roy Stryker. She was unique among FSA photographers, showing the extremes of the country’s rich and poor in the late 30’s, and addressed the issues of race relations with intensity and depth.

Wolcott’s creativity and her unfailing perseverance resulted in powerful documentary images: farmers harvesting the tobacco fields in Lexington, KY; affluent spectators at the races in Florida; coal miners and their families throughout West Virginia and farm laborers in North Carolina and Mississippi.

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Jack Delano and the Greene County Jail Dance

Greene County Jail, Jack Delano, 1941Georgia, June 1941. Photo by Jack Delano.

Jack Delano, was one  of the group of photographers who fanned out throughout the United States in the 1930’s and 40’s on behalf of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Delano was not as well known as the other F.S.A. photographers, who included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee. Mr. Delano created images of people and places of surpassing elegance and empathy. Certain of his beautifully detailed, crisp black-and-white prints show the Evans influence, but his work also had the verve and deep insight of Lange and the technical curiosity and skill of Lee.

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RUSSELL LEE AND MINORITY AMERICA IN THE 1930s

Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: photo by Russell Lee, July 1939, FSA
Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: photo by Russell Lee, July 1939, FSA

 

Text by Bruce Berman

When Russell Lee and the other FSA photographers set off into America in the 1930s their social concern wasn’t hidden and, in fact, Roy Stryker, the Director and Editor of the of the Resettlement Administration’s (RA) Historical branch, encouraged his shooters to  find various minority groups and show their life style and their condition in our society. He wanted “full disclosure,” for the good and the bad but he he wanted these groups to be shown as part of the “American family.” Although the FSA’s mission was to show rural conditions in the environmentally and economically challenged Depression era, he was aware of what the impact of these photos would be. In effect, the FSA was part of the ongoing and increasing movement for justice and Civil Rights. How these groups were visually described and labeled, in an era before the confusion of politicaly correct labeling had become an issue, might not have been how these groups labeled themselves.

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Russell Lee: The Depression to Modernity

Sunday morning on the south side of Chicago by Russell Lee, 1941
Sunday morning on the south side of Chicago by Russell Lee, 1941

Text by Bruce Berman

By the 1940s, Russell Lee, Roy Stryker and the remaining elements of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) had begun to move onto the next great era of America: World War. The Depression was beginning to wane, the result of an uptick in industrial production gearing for war.

For Lee and company that meant a slight shift in message and a growing modernness of style, more mobile because of the use of smaller cameras and the sheer volume of serious photography being done in the “internet of its era,” the new “picture magazine” of Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, etc.

The last stages of FSA saw the focus and imagery of the FSA turn from exposing the depth of wretchedness to reform and reclamation during the Depression to a message of growing prosperity and recovery, a message that supported the idea that America “was back!”

If you are shooting for the Government there is a reason you are on the payroll. Your “boss” wants you to support a message. The message can be benign or insidious but make no mistake, you will deliver the “message” or you will be freelancing.

No image better personifies this message than Lee’s 1941 image of five African-American boys, outfitted in their finest, posing proudly for Lee’s Rollieflex (the irony of the “Rollie” being a German camera made in Lower Saxony was probably not lost on photographers of the war). In fact, the Rollie and the Leica were the two new technological “stars” coming into use during the war, both using roll film, faster to operate than previous cameras, especially because the speeds of film had also inceased to a whopping ASA of 125. Both were German manufactured. However, the main work horse for most press photographers -especially the military Signal Corps shooters- was the Speed Graphic, big (it took a 4″ X 5″ sheet of film, one sheet at a time), cumbersome and slow to use, but American made.

The Rolleiflex TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera
The Rolleiflex TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera

Even while we fought the war the era of imports (specifically from Germany and Japan) had begun. The full deluge couldn’t and didn’t happen until the war was over and the conquered Axis countries were occupied and their manufacturing bases had begun to produce again, this time, fully modernized and aimed at export to, mainly -insert irony- the United States.

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LANGE’S SHORT STORY CAPTIONS

From Texas tenant farmer to California fruit tramp. Marysville, Calif. His story: 1927 made 7,000 dollars in cotton. 1928 broke even. 1929 went in the hole. 1930 went in still deeper. 1931 lost everything. 1932 hit the road. by Dorothea Lange, 1936. Another photo of this family is below
From Texas tenant farmer to California fruit tramp. Marysville, Calif. His story: 1927 made 7,000 dollars in cotton. 1928 broke even. 1929 went in the hole. 1930 went in still deeper. 1931 lost everything. 1932 hit the road. Photograph by Dorothea Lange. 1936

Text by Bruce Berman

Dorothea Lange not only photographed the people who were suffering the disaster of the Depression, she got to know them.

Her captions, written and sent to Roy Stryker at the FSA (either with her undeveloped film -which was rare- or with her developed film (she was the only FSA shooter allowed to do so) often were mini Short Stories.

In the photograph above, for example, in 39 words Lange hits four of the five “5Ws and the H” that are the staple of good journalistic writing. The “How” is obvious: California by car.

Lange’s intimacy was a keystone of her work. The relaxed body language of the migrant father, the careful posing of six people (never easy and especially so with young children), the near “offering” of the baby to the photographer, a metaphorical gesture that Lange was undoubtedly aware of, all indicate a more than momentary photo shoot. She was engaged and she, like any good photographer, was dropping the barrier between subjects and “official person.” Her work indicated familiarity and, to a degree, intimacy.

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Eastern New Mexico

The Wool Bowl, Roswell, New Mexico, July 2013

Russell Lee went through Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1930s often.

I have gone through Roswell often since the early 1980s.

It is a city of 50,000 people and is a flatland, part of the Great Plains, just out of the Sacramento Mountains. If you’re coming to Roswell from the west, the mountains, you get the feeling you’re starting to head into America’s Heartland, the flat places, the farmlands.

If you’re coming from the east, from Texas or Oklahoma, one gets the feeling you’re starting to head to the wild lands of the west. The spaces get wider, the horizon is farther off, the arithmetic of the geography becomes basic. You look west and you see a wide and high mountain range. In the winter the Capitain Mountain’s top is covered in snow. Beyond there is the endless mountains of New Mexico and Arizona, Utah and California. Roswell is the thinning of the land, eventually leading to the great deserts beyond, or the ending of the youthful upheaval of the wild west, heading to the old lands of the east.

This little town, lying on the cusp between old and new, Roswell is, therefore, sort of a Border Town, a place between eco systems and cultures. 

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Defining Memorial Day

RLR_LaUnionNM32 LoRes
Mr. Saenz, Korean War Veteran in La Union, New Mexico, 2010

Hero is a word easily tossed around.

Having the fortitude to go to war for one’s country is, certainly, one of the  basic pillars one can use to define courage, loyalty, sacrifice, and, perhaps, hero.

Memorial Day is only 1/365th of the days we can remember the gift that our veterans have give to us. But, if it’s only that, well, so be it.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.

It takes courage -and faith- to risk life itself for an idea,  a commitment.

Country? G*d? A way of life?

Every one of these “guys” have told me, “You just do it. You don’t question it.”

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Rooster Man

Man holds “The Old Man,”  Chapparal  New Mexico

Bruce Berman©2012

Editor’s note: Name withheld to protect the subject.

Ex-cockfighter holds “The Old Man,” his name for his 11 year old fighting cock. He is standing in the yard of his home in Chapparal, New Mexico where he raises and maintains fighting cocks. Cockfighting in New Mexico was outlawed on July 15,2007 .

This man has been raising and competing with his fighting cocks since he was 12 years old. The Old Man is a ten time winner in cockfighting competitions.

The cockfighting man no longer participates or competes. He continues to raise his birds “for the love of them.”

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Branded Courthouse

Eddy County New Mexico Courthouse, June 2012,

photograph by ©Bruce Berman

Construction on the the Eddy County, New Mexico Courthouse was begun in 1891. Up to $30,000 was allotted for its construction. The brands of cattle ranches from the region were etched around the west doors in 1940 and have been maintained there since.

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Ranch Full Of Cadillacs: Miss You Bad

Cadilac Ranch, Interstate 40, Amarillo, Texas

©2012 Bruce Berman

Post by Bruce Berman

Cadillac Ranch is a public art installation and sculpture in Amarillo, Texas. It was created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the art group Ant Farm. Cadillac Ranch is currently located along Interstate 40 and is clearly visible to all cross country visitors. It was originally located in a wheat field, but in 1997 the installation was quietly moved by a local contractor two miles (three kilometers)  to a cow pasture on the edge of the town of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.

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Two Americas: Big Gulp Nation v. Cappachino City

Friends on Main Street, Anson, Texas

©2012 Bruce Berman

Editorial Comment

by Bruce Berman, RLR Editor

Here’s the weird thing: there really are (at least) two Americas out there (the phrase came from someone who isn’t either and will, hopefully just fade away). And this has been going on for a long time.

What was the reason the W.P.A. created the Farm Security Admibnistration which created the “Historical Section,” that employed Lee, Lange, Evans, Rothstein, Parks,  and the whole rest of the FSA shooters?

“To explain to the cities the need for the New Deal programs in rural America,” as Nancy Woods in In This Proud Land says.

And here we have 2012. It’s not exactly the same mix of “rural v. urban,” but it is some kind of mix between the equitied and the struggling and the struggling are out there, and they think they are living the right way and the other America, the one now represented by Hope and Change thinks the other half are a bunch of rubes, or, as one famous non rube said, “They’re clinging to their guns and religion.”

Well yeah and always will.

The question is, Lost American, what are you clinging to?

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The Road Russell Lee Did Not Travel

Socorro New Mexico Wild Man, August 2011-photograph by Bruce Berman

Then there is another road on Russell Lee’s Road. It is the road not often described, the road that is deeply there and I suspect always was. It is the road less traveled and it is the underbelly of, not only New Mexico, but America today. Looking at the road of Lee and the other FSA photographers of the 1930s, one would imagine that the grind of the never-ending depression was something that people were waiting out, that the “hard times,” were something that  was being endured until better times arrived.

But, after awhile, hard times dig down deep into the soul of a country and leave scars and damage and incapacity.

The role of the FSA was to uplift. The images and words of the FSA were meant to show that the government had come to the rescue and that, given enough time and money, the government would fix things, was fixing things.

But, as previously stated in on this web site, for all the millions of dollars spent in the 1930s on programs to uplift the society from the Great Depression, unemployment never went down significantly.  Like now. It hovered around 20% throughout the 1930s (this statistic included those still looking for work but unable to find it. Today, those who are looking but do not find work are not included or tabulated. They don’t exist according to the Dept. of Labor).

Our times have seen boom and bust and boom again and bust again. But another form of depression has been gaining steam: the loss of mission and the loss of belief. Throughout the history of the country we have lived the conceit that we were one –The One, so to speak- and that we were special and that we were the best of nations and people.

Some of us still believe this to be the case but many don’t. Can’t.

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Pistoleros and Photographers Hit The Road

Second Amendment Kid with plastic rifle, Magdalena, NM by Bruce Berman ©2011
Clyde Barrow with two Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR), a shotgun, and lots of attitude, photographer unknown (probably Bonnie)
In 1930’s America, as in 2011 America, violence was a public problem. As the depression deepened, the crime rate rose. The main increase in crime came in the category of armed robbery. The big news in crime, in the 1930’s was in the cities in the aftermath of Prohibition, gangs were consolidating and becoming crime families. In the small towns of Depression era America, however, there was economic lawlessness and desperate people did desperate things.
No one more personified this than Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who became legendary for their bank-robbing exploits (actually they preferred grocery stores and gas stations but, perhaps, then as now, banks seemed to be, in the public’s mind, better targets). Many of their exploits overlapped the territory where the FSA photographers worked: the rural heartland of the country. The couple were Texans through and through (Big City Texan in the case of Bonnie. She was from Dallas). Barrow and Parker centered their activities around the Lone Star State and Oklahoma but later branched out to the Midwest.
They were, whether by self invention or as newspaper-selling darlings, Gansta before there were Ganstas.
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The FSA Shooters: Jack Delano

Photo By Jack Delano- Library of Congress/OWI, Dec. 1942

Article by Bruce Berman

This image is of a General view of one of the yards of the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, Chicago, Ill.

Notice the film’s edges, indicating it was shot with a “4X5” camera, probably a Speed Graphic which was the “Go To” press camera of the era.

Also, notice, it was shot in color, a rarity in this era. Since it was a “positive,” meaning that the image was not reversed (a “negative”) but positive (the image showed correctly) , it was, undoubtedly shot on Kodak’s  Kodachrome film.

This was not as easy a photograph to make as it first appears.

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1930’s America: We Need A Hero

1938 One Page Beginning

Article by Bruce Berman

When Russell Lee and the other Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers set out on the American Highway of the 1930’s, the country was stuck between a deep and intractable Depression and distant rumblings of a growing doom coming from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Unemployment hovered around 20% for most of the decade. The “have’s” were recovering, but the “Common Man,” still often found himself (or herself) living a subsistence lifestyle. By 1938, the roiling anger of the decade had turned to dejection. The Depression, it seemed, would go on forever.

The beginning of FDR’s New Deal was based on the belief that changing America for the better was possible and that by informing the general public of the plight of the average American, things could change, justice could be found, that all could end well.
The FSA and its photographers had set out with this belief and undertook the task of informing the general public of the plight of the average American.

But the Depression ground on.

By 1938, the country was still nowhere near out of the Great Depression. Officially begun at the end of the last decade, America had not yet begun it’s industrial expansion -and, thus, its rise from the ashes- and the cumulative effect of devaluation, dislocation and uncertainty had demoralized the national soul.

America was looking for a hero.

Someone super.

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News Isn’t Cheap: 1936-2011

The NBC Control Room in NYC, 1936

(photographer unknown)

Article by Bruce Berman

What did Russell Lee do when he was on the road? His notes indicate that he did a lot of thinking about what he had shot at the last stop and what he needed to shoot at the next stop. However, in the thousands of miles that he logged in for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) he must have found “blank spaces” in his travels, times when he was bored with the road, even the job and its mission.

Did he have a radio in his old Ford? He was an innovator and, as a photographer, he was up on the latest technology, being one of the first photojournalists of his day to use the Rollieflex Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera (which had a 2 1/4inch square negative and, thus, was small and mobile). This would lead one to speculate that, perhaps Lee was also interested in other technologies and, when he “hit the road” for the FSA, radios and radio networks were a fairly recent innovation.

There were 599 radio stations in 1936.

Broadcasting of the 599 broadcasting stations in the United States, approximately 500 were licensed to different individuals or corporations. There were two major network organizations–the National Broadcasting Company, operating two national networks linking in whole or part a total of about eighty stations, and the Columbia Broadcasting System, also linking about eighty stations but in a single network in whole or part. Most of these stations were individually owned by private enterprises.

News to people along Russell Lee’s Road, and other rural locations, could get there news more rapidly from radio than they could from print media and, once the radio had been purchased, the news was free if you were anywhere near a broadcasting tower or had a radio in your car.

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