Regarding the Ordinary American

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition.  That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today.  The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression.  That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.

An FSA photograph by Russell Lee of a family in Pie Town, New Mexico.

Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940.  FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.

Going to town (FSA photograph)

Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’  A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white.  As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.

FSA-houses-factories

Houses and factories.   Unidentified photographer.  From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.

The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science.  Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology.  Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.

All images from the Library of Congress.
Click on an image to go to its source.

‘Summertime 1944’

Frederick Boulton's watercolor "Summertime 1944) shows the back yard of a home on Chicago's north shore.

We saw this beautiful watercolor in an antique store and were immediately drawn to its vibrant color and technique.  Bob liked it because it was a ‘happy’ picture.  Its subject, the lush backyard of a suburban home in summer, was familiar.  The back yard turns out to have been on Chicago’s North Shore—perhaps in Lake Forest or Highland Park, where the water-colorist, Frederick William Boulton, lived for several decades.

Boulton (1904-1969) was born in Mishawaka, Indiana, the son of a Lutheran minister.  He came to Chicago to study at the Art Institute and the American Academy of Art, completing his studies in Paris at the esteemed Académie Julian.  Returning to Chicago, he embarked in 1923 on a career as a commercial artist with J Walter Thompson, the ad agency.

Boulton was successful, becoming an art director and vice president at JWT, while continuing to paint in his spare time.  He founded the Art Directors’ Club of Chicago and was honored as art director of the year by the National Society of Art Directors in 1955.  According to the Highland Park Public Library, which owns one of his paintings, he lived in the Braeside area of Highland Park from 1938 until the late 1950s.

summertime-inscription

‘Summertime 1944′ has a signed inscription—’As George remembers it.  And fondly dedicated to him’— that adds interest and charm to what we see.  The house and garden, if lifeless, are perfect.  The grass is manicured, the landscape and patio glowing with order and beauty.  Whether painted in the summer of 1944 or later, this elegant depiction of a place ‘George’ knew well may well have been intended to make him smile or laugh.

Does ‘Summertime 1944’ faithfully represent a place and a moment, or is it an idealized souvenir of a past that never was, or was no longer, as tranquil and perfect as memory deemed?  Whatever the case, its paean to the joys of home still sings.

How Much Do We Need?

House and fruit stand in Houston, 1943 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

During the Great Depression, in the 1930s and early 40s, the federal government sent photographers out all over the country to document the condition of the people (and to keep a few more photographers employed).  The effort produced some of the most famous images in American photography, as well as scads of seldom-seen photographs, like this one, now available online.

The pictures capture America at a time when the modern consumer society was just beginning.  Americans drank Pepsi and Coke, bought things on credit, and wore factory-made clothes.  In many parts of the country, though, many Americans still used horses, made what they wore by hand, grew their own food, and did without refrigerators or washing machines.  The “March of Progress” hadn’t yet made it to their neighborhoods, and perhaps some were not all that eager to see it arrive.

Life was tough, but the relative simplicity of Americans’ material conditions brought clarity.  It was easy to see the relation between work and the standard of living people enjoyed.  Then, as now, many Americans lived in a precarious state or in out-and-out poverty.  Society was less knit together in a corporate economy, so the solitude of failure was a specter individuals lived with daily.  The wedge between the hard work of getting and the easy work of spending was already there, but there were far fewer goods to buy.

A tension had already developed, between the industrial output of the US and the capacity of individual citizens to consume all of what the nation made.  As early as the 1890s, the government and corporations began pushing to develop markets for our products overseas, producing the kind of globalism that prevails today.  No one has ever figured out what to do when the goods in the world exceed what the human population wants or needs.

Today, in a time of high long-term unemployment, commentators fret about “low consumer confidence.”  We’re told this is the reason American corporations are reluctant to hire.  Yet it’s perverse to hope that Americans will spend when they are in debt, unemployed, and impoverished.  It’s amazing how much more “confident” a consumer feels when he or she has a paycheck or a real wad of money.

Corporations and banks show their contempt by sitting on hordes of cash rather than making it a priority to hire American workers, which would ease our collective difficulties.  Meanwhile, we have lost sight of economic independence as an important goal of a free people.  In the midst of this antagonism, we need to keep asking, how much do we need?

Top image: House and fruit stand in Houston, photographed by John Vachon, 1943,
from this source
.

The Political Animal at Rest

Production still of Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason

Aristotle conceived of us as political animals, attaining complete fulfillment only through participation in political life.  If true, this interminable campaign season should be one of our happiest times.

Thrilled as we may be with the eat-drink-politics character of the weeks unfolding, we must be on guard: some 235 days remain before the general election.  Political animals are highly sensitive, and have been known to be susceptible to sudden mood swings.  For such high-strung creatures, political engagement 24/7 simply isn’t healthy.

Happily, their forebears have created a magnificent canon of diverting novels and movies, whether about campaigning and the presidency, or about Washington, government, paranoia, political eras, or the political bug more generally.  Just the other day, I saw a love story set against the unlikely backdrop of the G8.  Pastimes for the political?  There are endless possibilities.  Not all are great works by any means: some are fantastic, some hard-hitting, others irreverent or downright silly.  But they speak to a political animal’s recreational needs by furnishing an excuse to think about politics by other means.

Walter Brennan in Frank Capra's 1941 film, "Meet John Doe"

Today’s recommended diversion: Meet John Doe (1941), an old chestnut by Frank Capra that seems tailor-made for our times.  With its Depression-crazed characters struggling in the grip of an all-destroying capitalism, the film reads like something straight out of Occupy.  Gary Cooper is Long John Willoughby, a down-and-out ballplayer who, for the sake of 50 dollars, agrees to become “John Doe,” a symbolic everyman he knows to be a journalistic fraud.  Barbara Stanwyck is journalist Ann Mitchell, scheming to make John Doe a sensation out of professional vanity and for the sake of keeping her job.  Both become better humans as they struggle against D.B. Norton (is that D.B. for Dollar Bills?), an oil-turned-newspaper baron intent on controlling politics and public opinion.  Walter Brennan nearly steals the show as Willoughby’s sidekick “the Colonel,” a fellow bum who is the moral center of the movie.  His classic warning against “the heelots” is a must-see.

Meet John Doe is in the public domain.  You can watch it immediately in its entirety via YouTube or the Internet Archive.  Go for it.  Because you know what?  The real thing’ll still be there in a few hours’ time.

Image (top): Publicity still for Meet John Doe
with Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason,
from this source.

Image (bottom): Walter Brennan in Meet John Doe,
public domain.