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The Ex-Slave Interviews in the Depression Cultural Context

Mark Krasovic

The 1930s and Documentary Expression

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Andrew Herman (Photographer)

"a Farm Security Administration photograph of an old woman's knotted and gnarled hands is a human and social document of great moment and moving quality.... The fact is a thousand times more important than the photographer; his personality can be intruded only by the worst taste of exhibitionism; this at last is reality."

"Documentary Photography"
McCausland, Elizabeth

The Great Depression brought to an end the period of prosperity the United States had enjoyed in the 1920s. With unemployment rolls pushing fifteen million, bank and factory closures, and severe regional drought, the nation faced an economic and spiritual calamity the likes of which was unseen since perhaps the Civil War. The federal government under President Roosevelt responded to the crisis with a New Deal for economic recovery and social reform. American artistic culture also answered the call to action necessitated by the Depression. One of the most prevalent artistic responses to the times was the adoption of documentary expression. As a means of coping with the apparent chaos of the period, the documentarist sought solidity and order.

An interest in documentary expression manifested itself in several places in Great Depression America. In the novel, for example, there was a move away from pure fiction and imagination. In a clear break with their colleagues of the previous decade, especially those in self-imposed European exile, many writers saw stylistic experimentation and a cosmopolitan imagination as socially-irresponsible indulgences not to be entertained in such times of national crisis. Instead, there was a marked turn to a socially-useful national realism that embraced the "facts" of American life. The times had provided a human drama of immense proportions; there was no need to invent circumstances. Thus, many fiction writers turned toward "documenting" the common people, those who suffered most brutally the effects of the Depression. The results were such books as Jack Conroy's The Disinherited and John Steinbeck's enduring classic The Grapes of Wrath.

Similar motivations were behind a sudden burst in photographic and cinematic documentary expression as well. Again, a socially-conscious art was called for and people lugged their camera equipment out across the country to document the human sufferings, and sometimes the traces of hope, that had spread over the nation. The human and geographic subjects caught on film in such works as Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains and the photography of Margaret Bourke-White's You Have Seen Their Faces left an indelible imprint on the conscience of a nation. These were not attempts to sugar-coat the lives of the authentic "folk" in the realm of culture. Such projects were designed to effect an increased political awareness of the plight of sharecroppers, migrants, and the American proletariat - an increased awareness that would ideally lead to increased action.

The arts projects of the New Deal largely fall into this documentary trend. One is reminded of the intense regionalism and celebration of the working class in many post-office murals. One is also reminded of the localism of the Living Newspaper plays of the Federal Theater Project. The Federal Writers' Project also produced volumes of material in the documentary vein. Its celebrated American Guide Series was compiled in part from a variety of documentary materials including photographs and oral histories. The FWP also provided documentary evidence of black and white southern agricultural workers in These Are Our Lives and of thousands of former slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection.

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