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Capitalism and the Depression
chrysler REVITILIZING INDUSTRY:   Between 1931 and 1941, Henry Luce's Fortune sought to rehabilitate the nationally problematized image of big business through the authority of photography. The panic of 1929 began as a crisis of the stock market and therefore of an elite Wall Street world, but in a short time the psychological, emotional, and financial effects rippled out from Wall Street to touch Americans across geographic regions and down the economic scale. "Big industry" had rushed America forward with "a narrowly conceived drive for efficiency" and had created, "tragic wastefulness of want amid plenty" (Cooney). Big business in many ways had caused the economy to fail and industry might have remained a problematic entity in the public eye. That there was no dramatic upheaval or large-scale social unrest has puzzled scholars for decades. We observe, however, that the nation followed two trajectories, only one of which had real support. The political left reacted to the economic crisis by trying to dramatically reorder values and society while the majority of Americans -- the center and the right -- held to traditional values, for a variety of reasons that this work will explore later. Despite the failures of traditional structures, such as government, economy, religion and democratic ideology (see Henry Purcell or Walter Lippman's writings), these Americans continued to believe that the American Dream was viable. Ultimately, Americans looked to industry and technology for their country's repair, believing in the ability of technology as a rehabilitative driving force. Fortune displayed the details and structures of industry to a society that enforced "contemporary emphasis on large-scale undertakings in engineering and technology" (Cooney).

  The center and right found a solution to the difficult task of perpetuating ideology during the Depression: old values could not be described as they were before the crisis of faith, but they could be revitalized and made current. Fortune's nostalgia paired with its optimism transformed old American values into the shape of industrial capitalism. Most importantly, what was once the individualistic Protestant work ethic was reshaped into industrial work on a grand scale. Each worker contributed to the greater good, and the workers were presided over by a boss who played as God to their community. Suddenly the complete congregation and clergy of Protestant America was transferred to the board room of corporate America. Fortune captured this image photographically, presenting industry to the public as the natural continuation of traditional values. The power of photography was reshaping our national identity.

THE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE:   Daniel Boorstin argues that Americans of the Depression were unwilling to accept "ideals," craving instead the facts that a camera could bring. The image that Fortune provided became an ideal by the conventions of photography and the public's faith in mechanical reproductions. While the photographic series were supported by text, words were not the purveyors of Fortune's authority. Berenice Abbott, who photographed for Fortune in the early 1930s, claimed "Photography has replaced the word . . . we have photography of the now." The conventions of reading photographs gave photographic essays an avenue to form ideals.


sports hero CONSUMING FACTS, NOT IDEALS:   Photographs were widely used to propagate images of American-ness and identity during the Depression years. Since its inception, photography was regarded by many as a passive collector of events and minute details. Such an idealistic notion can be qualified by admitting the biases of object choice and conceptualization, but for Americans of the 1930s, an image provided unassailable facts. In many 1930s images, industrial technology was depicted as benevolent at best and as a neutral player at worst. Photographs were becoming important to advertisers and a rising consumer culture demanded facts while absorbing products and the qualities they represented. Americans found new solidarity through a burgeoning mass media (supported by photographs) that emphasized American identity and shared experience. Never before had Americans literally seen so much of themselves as they did after the rise of the miniature camera in the 1930s. Amateurs and professionals took advantage of the snap shot camera in newspapers and magazines, as well as in artistic documentaries (Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor's "Again the Covered Wagon," and Walker Evans' American Photographs), while New Deal programs such as the Farm Security Administration relied on photography to promote their initiatives. Images were everywhere, quietly and innocuously working on the American people.

  The rise of commercial consumerism during the Depression crisis was one step on the track toward restoring public faith in industry and manufacture, making the American dream of self-reliance possible once again. Consumerism became a form of security during hard times as advertisements concentrated on "fantasy, status, and therapy" (Cooney). Luce proclaimed that America's great purpose was "to create on this continent . . . the first modern technological, prosperous, humane and reverent civilization" (Time/Luce). His belief remained unshaken by the Great Depression, and his plan to create Fortune in honor of business moved forward. Business had pushed America into the Great Depression, but the unique purpose of Fortune was to promote industry. Photography would be its greatest tool.


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