The worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, the Great Depression challenged American families in major ways, placing great economic, social, and psychological strains and demands upon them. Affecting both working-class and middle-class families drastically, millions of people lost their jobs and many were deprived of their homes. From a different perspective, another story of the family emerges - one that emphasizes the resilience and ability of the family to adapt in the face of adverse economic circumstances. This different perspective will be the focus of the upcoming exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Titled Dignity vs. Despair: Dorothea Lange and Depression-Era Photography 1933-1942, the exhibition will bring together works by some of the most well-known American photographers of the period – Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and Peter Sekaer.
In response to the Great Depression, The Farm Security Administration provided loans to farmers, facilitated the removal of families from economically challenged cities for resettlement in rural communities, and formed camps for migrant workers. In 1935, Roy Stryker, an economist from Columbia University, was assigned to determine how to prepare pictorial documentation of rural areas and problems and present them to the American government and people. In order to perform this difficult task, he brought together five photographers including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein. Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer worked for other government agencies. Capturing the plight of the poor and the successes of federal programs, these photographs represented an important watershed moment in the history of photography. Demonstrating that the government recognized the hardships of ordinary people and was working to relieve them, these photographs were meant to “show America to Americans”.
Featuring 64 photographs, the exhibition is arranged thematically and geographically into three sections. The first section includes Lange’s images of urban hardship in San Francisco in 1933-38; the second focuses on the South, an area hard hit by the Depression; and the final one documents the plight of the migrant worker, most often located in California. The survey also draws heavily upon the photographers’ own words about their works found from a variety of sources. Providing valuable and personal points of view, these documents will expand the exhibition beyond the subject matter. Adversity and resilience, themes prevalent in these photographs, are the same themes running through contemporary life. With the financial crisis of 2008, that demonstrated that global leaders did not really learn the lessons of the 1930s and made the same mistakes as their Depression-era counterparts, these photographs seem relevant as ever. They help us understand not only the strength of the human spirit in times of suffering but also the remarkable power of social and documentary photography to shape public opinion and influence.
Highlighting the museum’s extensive holding of Dorothea Lange’s work, her photographs, including the famous Migrant Mother, will make up more than half of the photos in the exhibition. As Jane L. Aspinwall, Associate Curator, Photography, notes, many people dismiss these Depression-era photographs as sad, but he doesn’t see them that way. “Roy Stryker didn’t see them that way either. He recognized in the photos a quiet human dignity, something that, as he described it, ‘transcends misery’ and reflects our ‘ability to endure,’” he explains. The exhibition Dignity vs. Despair: Dorothea Lange and Depression-Era Photographs, 1933-1941 will be on view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City from June 23rd until November 26th, 2017. This will be the first Depression-era exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins.
Featured image: Dorothy Lange - Migrant Mother (detail). All images courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.