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Speaking Volumes: Worth 1,000 Words

October 6, 2005 By:
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There's a certain kind of Depression photograph that many people recognize instantly, and that they may even be able to call up in their minds' eye. For example, there's the now iconic portrait of an impoverished mother, dressed in a worn, loose-fitting housedress, staring out into the middle distance, her hand on her chin, as if trying to divine where her family's next meal might be coming from or whether there'll be work for her husband that day.

Or there are those similarly classic portraits, as if shot from above, showing desperate men and women standing on long, winding bread lines, hoping for a bowl of soup, and maybe, if their luck holds out, a bed for the night.

Or there are the portraits of the Oakies, their one battered model-T Ford packed to the brim with everything they've ever owned. These are people reluctantly leaving behind their rutted, unproductive farmland; and yet with the last ounce of their effort, they've pointed their weighted-down automobiles triumphantly toward the West, clinging to the dream that in sunny, temperate California there could possibly be employment picking fruit in the fields.

These were photos taken by young, ambitious photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who would, within a short time, become world famous. But back then in the mid-1930s, they were employees of the U.S. government, charged with chronicling the despair and sense of dislocation that the Depression had stirred in the American people. These young, eager artists generally harbored progressive leanings, and so felt themselves on personal crusades to graphically capture what the vagaries of American capitalism had wrought upon some of the country's most economically fragile citizens. And it was these images of despair that became the famous ones, reprinted repeatedly throughout the decades and remembered most vividly by Americans of all stripes.

But the original government project was much wider in scope than simply fixing scenes of economic hardship on film. These photographers had been told to go out and uncover telling scenes from all facets of American life, whether in the rural areas or on the streets of the great cities. How did the American people amuse themselves in hard times? What were their favorite pursuits? And perhaps most important of all, how did they express their faith?

In some sense, these corresponding but less despairing images were mislaid or, worse, forgotten - at least till now. Colleen McDannell, professor of history and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah, has published the first historical record of this aspect of the project. Her book, Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression, published by Yale University Press, is abundantly illustrated with these wonderful, nearly forgotten black-and-white images.

Although the majority of them depict roadside baptisms and revival meetings far from the heart of urban America, many depict Jews at prayer. In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to the subject of "Farming Jews."

The artists represented here are Lange and Evans, of course, but other, lesser-known figures, like Russell Lee, John Collier, Jack Delano and the great Marion Post Wolcott, are also included.

As for the Jews depicted, they are shown in rural Connecticut and on the chicken farms of New Jersey, many sent to such areas through the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and later, the Jewish Agricultural Society, which provided small loans to help farmers in difficult economic times. Their simple, unadorned places of worship are light years away from what we call synagogues today, but as much as any church in the deep South or Midwest, they represent a piece of American history well worth preserving.

 

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