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The last Great Depression before this one, starting in 1929 and lasting until the US entered the Second World War, spawned a great deal of artistic production that was intended to shock the conscience of America. I’ve already written about Ben Shahn a few months ago. Today, on the anniversary of her death in 1965, I want to turn my attention to Dorothea Lange.

Lange was one of a group of photographers who worked for the federal government, specifically the Farm Security Administration, during the depression with the primary aim being to call the nation’s attention to the economic hardships visited upon their neighbors and fellow Americans. It wouldn’t be much of a distortion to label the effort government-sponsored propaganda and right-wing critics denounced it as such. I don’t worry too much about these things because government-sponsored propaganda remains alive and well to this day and is practiced at every level of American politics. Criticize them all you want because Lange and the the rest of the FSA photographer (including the likes of Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and a number of other luminaries in American Photography) left us a tremendous body of work documenting one of the most troubling times in our history.

Lange’s iconic photograph Migrant Mother (below) is, for many of us, the face of the Great Depression. It captured the troubles and fears of a nation at a time when a single image had enormous power, before we became bombarded by a blizzard of visual stimulation every waking second of our lives.

Images still have power, but I don’t know if a single image will emerge from the trying times we’re living today that will capture the essence of our culture the way Lange did in 1936. We’ve become adept at seeking things that reinforce our beliefs and rejecting things that challenge them and we’ve built an entire media industry on that simple premise.¬† I learned from my Mother that ignoring other people’s problems wasn’t quite as easy in the 1930s as it became in the 21st Century. I wonder what that says about us.

Migrant Mother (Dorothea Lange - 1936)

 

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