One of the blessings resulting from membership in what has come to be known as the "baby boomer" generation is that we were spared the suffering and memories of the two most difficult decades of the twentieth century--the 1930s and 40s. Bad as the war years of the 40s were in terms of death and suffering, both were encountered mostly elsewhere in the world and in general, here at least, they were a time of hope for a better tomorrow. The Great Depression of the 1930s, on the other hand, was a home grown tragedy mired in despair; and few who lived through this decade escaped without bearing psychological scars. As art goes, there wasn't much of any consequence during either decade. The WPA sponsored some murals in public buildings that were, well, interesting, if hardly remarkable. And after the war the seeds of Abstract Expressionism began to sprout in New York, which was to some degree noteworthy. However during this period, one artform DID stand forth with remarkable valour and excellence--photography. It's interesting to note that during periods of economic hardship, art tends to embrace realism on the downward slide and idealism on the upswing. This perfectly describes art styles during this period. And the camera captured both with incredible fidelity.
The Farm Security Administration was established in 1935 during the darkest hours of the Depression. Its director, New Deal economist and sociologist, Roy Stryker, felt the need to spearhead reform at all levels of rural society. He hired six photographers to show everyone else just how bad things really were. Three of the best, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans, took their cameras to the heartlands and heartaches of a trouble nation. They brought back over 270,000 negatives, some of which have burned their way into our national psyche like no other art before or since. Lange's Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California has often been called an American Madonna. The mother was 32 but looked much older, lines of worry and suffering etched indelibly in her tired face; while behind her, two of her ten children cower in fear, hiding their faces from the world. They could very well have come from the deserted prairie farmhouse in Lange's 1938 photo Tractored Out, from Childress County, Texas, in which deep, curving furrows are plowed right up to the front door of a sharecroppers abandoned home.
At the dawn of the decade of the 30s, the typical image of the American Midwest came from the painter, Grant Wood. His dour, yet at the same time slightly humorous American Gothic, was hopeful and modestly noble in a sort of stiff, somewhat anxious way. Just five years later, Ben Shahn's photo, Rehabilitation Clients, Boone County, Arkansas, marks a 180-degree turnabout. The pose is the same (though the figures are reversed). The bib overalls are the same. So are the dour expressions, but there is nothing the least bit humorous about this desperate depiction of Midwestern rural existence. The backdrop is not Gothic Revival but the logs of lethargy. The look is not hopeful but hopeless. Walker Evans captured a similar stark existence, minus the players in this social tragedy, with his 1936 still-life photo, Washroom and Dining Area of Floyd Burrough's Home, Hale County, Alabama. The house is more upscale, the logs replaced by weathered siding, the worn, wooden floorboards scrubbed bare, but the furniture is stark and sparse. A towel hangs from a nail on the doorjamb next to a shelf bearing a small, metal basin. It is art rising to meet a need, then rising beyond that to the realm of greatness in becoming a sign of the times.