(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Great Depression

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”*…

 

From his office at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., Roy Stryker saw, time and again, the reality of the Great Depression, and the poverty and desperation gripping America’s rural communities. As head of the Information Division and manager of the FSA’s photo-documentary project, his job was to hire and brief photographers, and then select images they captured for distribution and publication. His eye helped shape the way we view the Great Depression, even today.

Professionally, Stryker was known for two things: preserving thousands of photographs from being destroyed for political reasons, and for “killing” lots of photos himself. Negatives he liked were selected to be printed. Those he didn’t—ones that didn’t fit the narrative and perspective of the FSA at the time, perhaps—were met with the business end of hole punch, which left gaping black voids in place of hog’s bellysindustrial landscapes, and the faces of farmworkers.

In 1935, the Resettlement Administration (RA) was established as part of the New Deal to provide relief, recovery, and reform to rural areas. The FSA, created in 1937, was its spiritual successor. The FSA’s duties included, but were not limited to, operating camps for victims of the Dust Bowl, setting up homestead communities, and providing education to more than 400,000 migrant families. Communicating about its efforts was also part of its mandate…

Stryker sought out photographers, among them Dorothea LangeGordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, and made their images readily available to the press. Given the lack of new photography and art being produced during the Great Depression, the photos regularly appeared in magazines such as LIFE and Look. He also had them displayed at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, the 1936 World’s Fair, the Museum of Modern Art, and other prominent venues. The publication of a series of early photographs, including Lange’s Migrant Mother, proved instrumental in pushing the federal government to provide emergency aid to migrant workers in California.

In the effort to represent the FSA and Roosevelt’s signature domestic achievement in a positive light, the chosen photos captured how the idealistic views of farm life were being tainted by poverty, and how the FSA programs were helping farmers reclaim their dignity. Common elements were decrepit housing conditions, the lack of food and clean water, and harsh work environments.

It was government propaganda, and there were certainly some within the government (both supporters and detractors) who saw it that way, and more who considered both the FSA and its photography project as communist and un-American. In a 1972 Interview, Stryker admits to having felt political pressure from the Department of Agriculture to portray the effectiveness of the New Deal. “Go to hell,” was his response. His photographers “were warned repeatedly not to manipulate their subjects in order to get more dramatic images, and their pictures were almost always printed without cropping or retouching.”

But there is a way to manipulate the story being told without altering the images themselves—the process of photo editing, of choosing which images to highlight and which to discard…

The fascinating story of one man’s (materially successful) effort to galvanize social and political opinion: “How a Hole Punch Shaped Public Perception of the Great Depression.”

And for an equally-fascinating consideration of how emerging new visual technologies might similarly be used to sway sentiment, read Fred Turner‘s “The Politics of Virtual Reality.”

* Richard Avedon

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As we celebrate skepticism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that Nolan Bushnell (co-founder of video game pioneer Atari) opened the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, ultimately a chain of family destinations that served pizza and other menu items, complemented by arcade games, amusement rides, and animatronic displays as a focus of entertainment (and often, birthday party celebration).  It took its name from its main animatronic character Chuck E. Cheese, a mouse who sang and interacted with guests.  Over 600 outlets are operating today in the U.S. and 17 other countries.

Chuck E. Cheese and Nolan Bushnell (Bushnell on right)

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“Many people take no care of their money till they come nearly to the end of it”*…

 

(Roughly) Daily has taken a look at the obscure corner of the U.S. Treasury once devoted (literally) to laundering money (“Cleanliness is Next to Godliness“); today we visit that operation’s forensic cousin…

The colorfully named Mutilated Currency Division at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is a small office of crack forensics that spend their days poring over all manner of defaced dollars. Provided for free as a public service, the Mutilated Currency employees labor to identify bits and fragments of identifiable denominations that can be redeemed at face value.

Established by Congress in 1866—less than five years after the government started issuing paper money—the Mutilated Currency Division handles about 30,000 cases a year, returning currency valued at over $30 million. As long as more than half of the note remains, or the Treasury can be satisfied that the missing portions have been destroyed, the Mutilated Currency Division will redeem the amount of money that has been damaged by fire, water, chemicals, and acts of god…

Cash in your burnt, moldy, or soiled greenbacks at “The Mutilated Currency Division.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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As we take it to the bank, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928, after more than 130 years of trading, that the New York Stock Exchange finally had its first day on which more than 5 million shares trade hands, as total daily volume hit 5,252,425 shares.  Just over a year later, on Black Tuesday, volume spiked to over 16 million shares…  as traders dumped their holdings and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 began (presaging the Great Depression).

Average daily volume (over the last three months) on the NYSE today is 880,564,865 shares.

Trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, 1929

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“Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor”*…

 

For a singular image of the Great Depression and the roughness of those years, it’s hard to do much better than Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, two of her children tucking their faces over her shoulders, a baby in her lap.

Where that image comes from, there are many, many more: around 175,000 surviving portraits of America between 1935 and 1945 taken by the photographers of the government’s Farm Security Administration. The Library of Congress, which houses the collection, has, remarkably, digitized all the negatives and tagged the records with loads of data, such as who took the picture and where it was taken.

Now, thanks to a new project known as Photogrammar from Yale University, viewers will have a much easier time exploring the photographs. There’s a map that displays the images by county and another that shows where each picture was taken and by which photographer. There’s also an interactive that allows viewers to sort the photos by theme (e.g. “war” or “religion”) and then browse from there. Other tools are still in the works

Agricultural workers bound for upstate New York in time for the harvest

More at “Seeing the Great Depression.”

* John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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As we go West, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that Parker Brothers purchased the patent for “The Landlord’s Game” from Elizabeth Magie, a Quaker political activist who had used the theories of the economist Henry George to create the game to illustrate the way in which monopolies impoverish (“bankrupt”) the many while concentrating extraordinary wealth in one or few.  Parker Brothers had released a copy– Charles Darrow’s “Monopoly”– which  was (to put it politely) closely modeled on “The Landlord’s Game”; when Darrow’s version became a hit in 1933, Parker Brothers bought “The Landlord’s Game” as insurance against a intellectual property suit– and subsequently paid Ms. Magie $500 for her patent to avoid a (completely justified) claim from her that “Monopoly” was, in effect, stolen.  It is estimated that over a billion people have played “Monopoly” over the years.

“The Landlord’s Game” board, from Magie’s original patent application

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Written by LW

November 6, 2015 at 1:01 am

“This world’s a bubble”*…

 

From “The Bay Area to Standard English Translator.”

[A similarly silly-but-serious bonus: “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar.”]

* alternately attributed to St. Augustine and to Francis Bacon

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As we send birthday greetings to the father of the field of sociology and the discipline of Positivism, August Comte, we might recall that it was on this date in 1929 that bearish economist Roger Babson gave a speech in which he warned, “sooner or later, a crash is coming, and it may be terrific.” He had been delivering this message for two years, but for the first time, investors listened. The stock market took a severe dip (now known in economic history as “the Babson Break”).  The next day, prices stabilized, but the equity collapse that we know as a trigger event for the Great Depression had begun.

Roger Babson

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Written by LW

September 5, 2015 at 1:01 am

“It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque…”*

 

Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California atop car with her giant camera. February 1936.

Dorothea Lange started her career in the 1920s as a commercial photographer in San Francisco; but in the 30s, as the Depression took hold, she instinctively tool her camera to the streets.  Then in 1935, Lange began her landmark work for the Farm Security Administration, a Federal Agency. Collaborating with her second husband, labor economist Paul S. Taylor, she documented the troubled exodus of farm families migrating West in search of work. Lange’s documentary style achieved its fullest expression in these years, with photographs such as Migrant Mother becoming instantly recognized symbols of the Depression.

California, February 1936. ”Destitute pea pickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children.”

“Migrant Mother” is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, California. Lange was concluding a month’s trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration.

In 1960, Dorothea Lange gave this account of the Migrant Mother experience–

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

Read more of Lange’s extraordinary journey, and see more of her work at the ever-enlightening The Selvedge Yard.

California, March 1937. “Toward Los Angeles.”

* Dorothea Lange

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As we dust, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that the Bank of United States, a commercial bank in New York, suspended withdrawals and closed, seeking protection for the Superintendent of Banks.  The prior day, a crowd had gathered at the Southern Boulevard branch in The Bronx seeking to withdraw their money. Though there had already been a wave of small bank runs in the southeastern part of the U.S. at least as early as November 1930, it was the run on the Bank of United States, reported by the New York Times and picked up by other metros around the U.S., that historians generally agree began the Great Depression.

Crowd of depositors gather in the rain outside Bank of United States after its failure

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Pity the poor photographers…

 

In this photo illustration a Lego shark chomps down on a Lego figure holding a Greek flag as other figures holding an Italian (L), Portuguese (C) and Spanish flag look on over a sea of Euro coins on September 27, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. Europe is continuing to wrestle with the ominous prospect of a Greek debt default that many fear could spread panic and push the already fragile economies of Italy, Portugal and Spain into a Eurozone crisis with global repercussions. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The Greeks aren’t the only ones sick of the euro crisis. Photographers are reaching the end of their tether too, struggling to shoot images of euro coins in various states of distress to illustrate the story. Though some of the photos are absurd, they still get published — because news outlets are equally desperate…

Read the whole sad story in “Photographer Fatigue: The Absurd Quest for Euro Crisis Images” in Spiegel Online.

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As we reach for our hankies, we might recall that it was during this month in 1930 that over 6,000 unemployed New Yorkers took to street corners selling apples at five cents apiece.  As Herbert Hoover unhelpfully observed, “Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”

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Written by LW

November 14, 2012 at 1:01 am

“Gold is the corpse of value…”*

 

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In the wake of World War I, with metals scarce, Germans faced a shortage of pocket change.  So cities, corporations, and sometimes individuals printed and used Serienschein (series notes), a form of Notgeld (emergency money).  Circulating from 1917 to 1923, in the run up to the great inflation that presaged the rise of National Socialism, the Serienschein were denominated in small amounts– one Pfennig up to one or two Marks– unlike the Notgeld issued during the great inflation, which were issued in giant denominations, up to $100 million Marks…

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And even then, required wheelbarrows for transactions…

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But the Serienschein were unlike the huge inflation bills in another way, too:  while the Weimar bills were as uniformly drab as the circumstances that spawned them, Serienschein— sourced from many different places, as they were–  were hugely various and often strikingly designed…

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These fascinating notes began to give way to their drab– but astronomically denominated– successors in 1922, when the European victors in WWI, led by England, demanded their reparations payments in full (and in gold).  Reeling still from their loss, and unable to rev their economy sufficiently quickly to cover the vig, the Germans were effectively bankrupted… and reduced to printing money.  Printing it as fast as they could.  The social toll was huge, and had a profound political effect, paving the way for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.

One notes that once again a group of European countries, this time ironically led by Germany, is looking to a beleaguered neighbor, this time Greece, for repayment at a time when the Greeks do not have the capacity to earn their way to solvency. (One notes, too, that Spain, Portugal, Italy, and others are trailing perilously closely behind Greece…).  So as one watches right-wing nationalist movements gather strength in these debtor nations, one can only hope that the folks with hands on the tillers in Germany (and at the EMU) recall George Santayana’s admonition (in The Life of Reason): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

See more examples of Serienschein here.

*Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

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As we think again about stuffing our mattresses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1929 that panicked sellers traded nearly 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange (four times the normal volume at the time), and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 12%.  Remembered as “Black Tuesday,” this was the conclusive event in the Crash of 1929, and is often cited as the start of the Great Depression.

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Written by LW

October 29, 2012 at 1:01 am

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