Students will analyze how photographers depicted the effects of the Depression on Dust Bowl refugees in the United States during the late 1930s.
Documenting the Great Depression
State Content Standards
11.6.3 Discuss the human toll of the Depression, natural disasters, and unwise agricultural practices and their effects on the depopulation of rural regions and on political movements of the left and right, with particular attention to the Dust Bowl refugees and their social and economic impacts in California.
empathize, photojournalism, Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Images of Coal Miner’s Child and Barn and Shed from Digital Crocker (crockerartumuseum.org).
1. State: “Both Marion Post Wolcott and Dorothea Lange made strong images of the Great Depression. They shared strong social ideals and the ability to empathize with their subjects. While Wolcott looks at the rural poor in West Virginia’s mountains, Lange turned her eye in this image to the circumstances facing the rural poor of America’s High Plains.”
2. Ask and discuss: “How does each artist tell a story using the camera?” 3. Ask and discuss: “What elements in the image help us understand that story?” 4. Ask and discuss: “What can we learn from these images about the differences between rural life and city life in America during the 1930s?”
5. Research and write a brief comparison:
a. Contextualize these photographs in the Great Depression.
b. Describe how each photograph illustrates the everyday life of individuals working in rural coal mining towns and agricultural areas during the Depression.
c. Describe how each photographer empathizes with their subject. What artistic elements does each photographer use to convey his or her message? Look at composition, color, subject, angle, contrast of light and dark, etc.
d. Judge whether or not you think each artist was effective in conveying their message. State why or why not.
Make the same comparison with a photograph of urban United States that dates from the late 1930s and attempts to empathize with the subject in light of a social hardship
Find or take a contemporary photograph that empathizes with the subject in light of social hardship. Examples could be Flint, Michigan, New Orleans, border regions, war torn countries. Explain what artistic elements the photographer employs to empathize with his or her subject.
About Marion Post Wolcott
Marion Post (Wolcott) was born in 1910 into a financially comfortable family in Montclair , New Jersey . Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, at which time Post and her sister were sent to a boarding school. At boarding school, Post flourished in the progressive atmosphere which nurtured her sense of inquiry and individuality. Away from school, Post spent time with her mother in New York 's Greenwich Village , meeting artists, writers, actors and attending lectures, concerts and museum exhibitions. Inspired in this atmosphere, Post began studying modern dance. She also studied early childhood education at the New School for Social Research and at New York University . While teaching for a brief period in a small Massachusetts town, she witnessed the impact of the Depression and the inequities of its impact on working class families versus more affluent families.
In 1932, Post traveled to Paris to study dance and also went to the University of Vienna to study child psychology. There, she met photographer Trude Fleischmann, with whom Post's sister studied. Fleischmann was impressed by Post's first photographic efforts. A friend had given Post a Rolliflex camera, which allowed her to further experiment. While in Vienna , Post and her sister saw the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe and soon returned home to escape the political turmoil. Once home, they helped many of their friends, including Fleischmann, immigrate to the US .
Post took up photography as a serious pursuit in 1935. Initially, she covered the New York theatre scene, but she also worked with the distinguished director Elia Kazan (1909-2003) on the film People of the Cumberlands . This experience introduced her to the South where she met people working for social reform. At age 25, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin hired Post as a photographer, and she became the first female staff photographer in the nation. At first, she met with prejudice and resistance from her fellow photographers, but over the course of three years, earned their respect and produced outstanding work. She was often frustrated with the fashion shows' and ladies' events that she was assigned to photograph. During this period, she met two influential photographers, Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner, through her involvement with the New York Photo League. Through Steiner, she met Roy Emerson Stryker, who hired photographers for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Stryker hired Post in 1938, and sent her to photograph coal miners in West Virginia .
Post's concern for social justice matched well with the goals of the FSA. During the three and a half years she worked for the FSA, Wolcott produced a compelling visual record of coal miners and their families in West Virginia , of farmers harvesting tobacco in Kentucky , and of farm workers in North Carolina and Mississippi . She also photographed in New England , Florida , and Louisiana , producing over 9,000 photographs. Her images reveal an empathy and understanding of her subjects. She worked under difficult conditions such as brutal weather, illness, attacks from rattlesnakes and mosquitoes and lack of shelter. She also met skepticism and hostility as a woman traveling alone and carrying a camera into unknown places. On cold days, she wrapped her cameras in hot water bottles to prevent the shutters from freezing. At night, she wrote about the images she made earlier in the day. In many images, she exposes the contrast between wealth and poverty, between substance farmers and miners, and affluent spectators enjoying sports and private entertainment. She portrayed the dignity of people who struggled to overcome horrible conditions and racism. The Journal of the Print World (1990) praised her work. “Her work has a formal control, emotional reticence and keen wit. Wolcott's creativity and her unfailing perseverance resulted in striking documentary images.”
In 1941, she met Lee Wolcott, a widower with two children. After they married, they purchased a working farm in Virginia . For the next three decades, Wolcott's camera was directed on her family, her home and traveling ( Egypt , Iran , Afghanistan , India and Pakistan ). She taught and photographed Native American children in New Mexico and in the 1970s, she documented California 's counterculture movements. Eventually, she and her husband moved to California where Post Wolcott became active in photography communities in San Francisco and Santa Barbara . In the 1980s, she undertook a project to produce an archive of her life's work. In the last decades of her life, Post Wolcott was a much sought-after speaker, her photographs were shown in several distinguished exhibitions, and she was presented with several prestigious awards including the National Press Photographers' Lifetime Achievement Award. Post Wolcott died in November 1990.
About Coal Miner's Child Taking Home Kerosene for Lamps
Post Wolcott expressed a sense of responsibility for documenting the hard-working American core. “I was committed to changing the attitudes of people by familiarizing America with the plight of the underprivileged, especially in rural America .” This image of a coal miner's child was one of 52 images made during her first FSA assignment in West Virginia in September 1938. A young girl lugs home a heavy container of kerosene from a company store. In the image, may be seen coal miners' houses and freight cars loaded with coal. Perspective seen in the diagonals created by the buildings and trains converge at the towering coal tipple used to sort various sizes of coal for the freight cars. The child follows the path which gently curves around a bend. The overall sense of the place is still, as if nothing will change in the foreseeable future.
By portraying the young child with her heavy load, Post emphasizes the child's situation. She performs a function to her family's survival. The experience that Post Wolcott records was shared by many living in such coal towns. Here, a coal company might own and operate the town, therefore, coal meant fuel, industry and progress to many families. This photograph also documents the shift to industry away from yeoman agriculture in America and its consequent effects on society, creating not only new wealth but new forms of poverty.
About the Farm Security Administration
President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Farm Security Administration (FSA) as part of the New Deal. It assisted farmers ravaged by economic turmoil and devastating droughts. The FSA was created within the Department of Agriculture and Roy Stryker, an economist, was entrusted as director. The agency's purpose was to bring financial relief and technical aid to farmers. The role of the photographic project was to promote the New Deal's agricultural programs to the American public and document the American experience during this challenging period. According to Stryker, “to introduce Americans to America .” Photographers were encouraged to show the dignity and resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It was an important assignment that provided employment to many photographers. In its first phase, the project documented the effects of cash loans to individual farmers, while the second phase documented lives of sharecroppers in the South, and migrant workers in the Midwest and West. In time, the scope expanded to rural and urban experiences throughout the country, as well as the build up to World War II.
During the agency's eight-year existence (1935 to 1942) the FSA photographers created 77,000 black and white photographs, and 644 color images. This is considered the most important body of documentary photography ever produced. Importantly, this body of images was produced during a significant transition in American culture. Heralding a dramatic shift in American culture from a reading culture to a visual culture, the photography essay emerged in Life and Look magazines and the FSA photographs were distributed to newspapers and magazines to build support for the New Deal programs.
Through her work for the FSA, Post Wolcott joined a group of exceptional photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks , John Collier, etc. Some, like Evans and Mydans, worked for only a short time. Others like Lange, worked on and off over several years. Their combined efforts set a standard for documentary photography in the 20th century.
Documentary by 8th grader Lachlan J. - won 1st place in 2009 National History Day District contest (Junior Division) held at UNC-Charlotte.
Sally Stein, Marion Post Wolcott: FSA Photographs . Carmel , CA : The Friends of Photography, 1983
(Biographical Sketch) catlin.clas.Virginia.edu/shadows/mpw/mpw-bio.html (4/6/05)
(Documentary Photography and the Great Depression) chnm.gmu.edu/fsa (May 2005)
(FSA) memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html (May 2005)
(FSA) xroads.Virginia.edu/~UG97/fsa/farm.html (May 2005)
(FSA) www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/052_fsa.html (May 2005)
(Smithsonian Interview ) www.aaa.si.edu/oralhist/wolcott65.htm (4/6/05)