Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesReading


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Small Budget, Big Issues
Survey Graphic had a smaller circulation and a smaller budget than its mainstream contemporaries. These included:

Survey Graphic's audience consisted of middle-class professionals who had an interest in social welfare issues and, in many cases, the power to make decisions that could influence American lives. [7] As a nonprofit publication, its chief goal was to educate these citizens so that they could make more informed decisions.

"The Magazine of Social Interpretation"
Survey Graphic interpreted America's social issues through writing and art. Throughout the 1930s, the magazine published a combination of illustrated articles and pictorial essays featuring photographs, cartoons, and paintings.

Relief RollIn addition to commissioning photographs from longtime associate Lewis Hine and historian/illustrator Hendrik Willem Van Loon, the editors obtained photographs from wire photo services such as Ewing Galloway, Black Star, Keystone, and International News. The magazine was also a vehicle for publicizing the federal government's Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs and the mural paintings of the Federal Art Project.

Documentary Methods
The magazine's writers followed the documentary methods of social scientists in the 1930s, using interviews, case studies, and participant observations to make general claims about the times. According to historian William Stott, "documentary writing was chiefly used to make vivid the period's social conditions and thus influence public opinion." [8]

Photography was another form of documentary expression— controversial, but nonetheless, effective in presenting different perspectives on life in the 1930s.

Writing in Photo Notes in January 1939, art critic Elizabeth McCausland explained the power of documentary photography, which came into prominence in the 1930s:

By virtue of this new spirit of realism, photography looks now at the external world with new eyes, the eyes of scientific, uncompromising honesty. The camera eye does not lie, is lightly said. On the contrary, the camera eye usually does nothing but lie, rationalizing the wrinkles of an aging face, obligingly overlooking peeling paint and rotting wood. But the external world is those facts of decay and change, of social retrogression and injustice—as well as the wide miles of America and its vast mountain ranges. The external world, we may add, is the world of human beings; and, whether we see their faces or the works of their hands and the consequences, tragic or otherwise, of their social institutions, we look at the world with a new orientation, more concerned with what is outside than with the inner ebb and flow of consciousness. [9]

Park Work Relief JobsPhotographs, then as now, reflected the ideologies of the photographers who took them and the clients who commissioned the work. As historian Lawrence Levine has pointed out, photographs of Depression-era culture revealed both external and internal realities, "not only appearances but also beliefs." [10]

The editors of Survey Graphic understood that documentary photographs could support their articles on America's hardships during the Depression by providing "evidence" to their readers that the conditions they discussed did exist.

Both documentary writers and documentary photographers humanized their subjects in order to make the common man's experience more real to their readers. Writers gave common men names and personalities. Photographers gave them faces.

Men on the RoadIn Survey Graphic, the two media complemented each other in articles such as Paul Taylor's "Again the Covered Wagon" (July 1935), which combined migrant family interviews with photographs by Dorothea Lange, and Gertrude Springer's "Men off the Road" (September 1934), which told the story of men working in relief camps using portraits from Lewis Hine.



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003