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I wrote of social realist painter Ben Shahn’s work last year in this post. Today, on the anniversary of his death in 1969, I want to shine a little light on his work as a photographer. It was through this work that I first became aware of him.

The federal government employed hundreds of artists and photographers during the Great Depression, documenting the social upheaval of the time and decorating public buildings across the country. It’s difficult to imagine anything like this happening in this today’s political climate. I won’t argue whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s undeniable that the depression-era arts projects have left us a deep and enlightening (if somewhat biased) reservoir of memories from a critical period in our nation’s history.

Shahn was one of those photographers and the Library of Congress houses more than 1,600 of his images, all available to the public with the click of a mouse. Many of his paintings from that period grew out of his work for the Farm Security Administration. This is our history. I think anyone who wants to complain about how bad things are now should click through Shahn’s photographs, or Dorothea Lange’s, or Walker Evans’, or Arthur Rothstein’s, and realize how much worse it could have been, and still could be if we’re not careful.

Squatter's Camp, Route 70, Arkansas (Ben Shahn, 1935)


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