They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Images force us to react in ways that text does not. It is not in vain that the third of the Ten Commandments prohibits graven images. The iconoclasts know that images can be subversive in their ability to arouse our emotions. If we ask why there were so many photographers, so many images, of the Depression, we are reminded, "Photographs have a swifter and more succinct impact than words, an impact that is instantaneous, visceral, and intense. They share the power of images in general, which have always played havoc with the human mind and heart, and they have the added force of evident accuracy" (Goldberg 7).

Photographs seem real. Or, at least they used to when photography was new. Supermarket tabloids, relativism and post-modernism reinforce our doubts, but photographs are still in some way more "real" than other graphic representations like painting. This sense that photography is real and somehow objective has created, from the beginning, a tradition of social documentary photography.

Reformers quickly learned the power of photography to support their cause and spread their message. Maren Stange traces the ways in which social documentary photography began to distinguish itself from other forms, exploiting photographic conventions in order to present "truth" and "reality" to suit a purpose. Black and white photography, uncontrolled lighting, and informal composition came to characterize the genre of social documentary photography, creating photographs that were seemingly natural, simply caught in an instant of life and therefore real, but stark and compelling in their absence of color. The most lasting, iconic photographs are "realistic, yet visually appealing images -- 'symbols of ideal life,' in philosopher John Dewey's phrase -- and formal complexity as well as radical content were suppressed in the pictures that became popular" (Stange xvi; see also Goldberg).

In the Great Depression, the tradition of documentary photography combined with the force of national crisis to set the flashbulbs flashing. For in times of crisis, there is a greater need for a sense of ourselves, of who we are and why we must and will remain unified. In wartime, we often define ourselves against our enemy. But in the Depression, we had to discover representative Americans. Distancing themselves from the criticism of the mainstream so popular in the 1920s, the media drew upon the sense that "we're all in this together." The popular and intellectual moods were characterized by a search for a consensus around Americans values, and the media claimed the chance to define America. The movies provided escapism to a "real" America of wealth and glitter, offering hope of a return to prosperity. But photographers -- in new magazines like Life (launched in 1936), in books, and in government projects -- gave us images of suffering Americans, of the tragedy of Depression. They moved the nation, and in our empathy, we were both united and urged to action.


FrontpageMargaret Bourke-White You Have Seen Their FacesFor Further Reading