kottke.org posts about greatdepression

Those great (staged?) Great Depression photosOct 20 2009

In his newest multipart essay for the NY Times, Errol Morris examines evidence of photo manipulations by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, including Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange. Were they dispassionate observers of American life in the 1930s or employees after a certain type of story?

If one can imagine the political animosity that would have been generated if, as part of the current stimulus package, President Obama introduced a national documentary photography program, then it is possible to understand the opposition that the F.S.A. faced. Fiscal conservatives did not want to see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on relief, let alone a government photography program, of all things.

What would a contemporary depression look like?Nov 24 2008

With the Great Depression further removed from today than the Civil War was then, it's difficult to imagine what a contemporary depression might look like.

Much of a modern depression would unfold in the domestic sphere: people driving less, shopping less, and eating in their houses more. They would watch television at home; unemployed parents would watch over their own kids instead of taking them to day care. With online banking, it would even be possible to have a bank run in which no one leaves the comfort of their home.

Also, desuburbanization:

In a deep and sustained downturn, home prices would likely sink further and not rise, dimming the appeal of homeownership, a large part of suburbia's draw. Renting an apartment -- perhaps in a city, where commuting costs are lower -- might be more tempting. And although city crime might increase, the sense of safety that attracted city-dwellers to the suburbs might suffer, too, in a downturn. Many suburban areas have already seen upticks in crime in recent years, which would only get worse as tax-poor towns spent less money on policing and public services.

Migrant MotherApr 09 2007

While working for the FDR administration in 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange took the following photograph:

Migrant Woman

You've likely seen it before...it's called Migrant Mother and it's one of the more famous American photos. When she took the photo, Lange neglected to note the woman's name (or other details) so her identity remained anonymous while the photo went on to become a symbol of the Great Depression. In the late 1970s, Florence Owens Thompson revealed herself to be the woman in the photo after she wrote a letter to her local paper saying that she didn't like the image. In an AP story about the ensuing flap, Thompson stated:

I wish she hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."

In addition to not taking her subject's name, Lange got something else wrong. Thompson and her family weren't typical Depression migrants at all; they'd been living in California for almost 10 years. Like all photographs, Migrant Mother is neither truth nor fiction but somewhere in-between.

Margaret Bourke-WhiteFeb 08 2007

I came across this striking photo by Margaret Bourke-White the other day:

Margaret Bourke-White - Bread Line during the Louisville flood, Kentucky, 1937

It's a photo of a bread line during the Louisville Flood in 1937. The 1937 flood was one of the worst floods ever to occur in the Ohio River Valley:

In January of 1937, rains began to fall throughout the Ohio River Valley, eventually triggering what is known today as the "Great Flood of 1937". Overall, total precipitation for January was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. [...] The Weather Bureau reported that total flood damage for the entire state of Kentucky was 250 million dollars, which was an incredible sum in 1937. Another flood of this magnitude would not be seen in the Ohio River Valley until 60 years later.

A diary from Mama Bondurant provides a glimpse into what the flood was like:

January 22---This is another terrible day. The water is still rising and we hear distress cries everywhere. I have tired all day to get West Point, but it is still under water. Jim came home for a little while but went back to Camp Knox to assist in placing flood sufferers from West Point. It is so bad outside. Rain has turned to sleet. Electricity is gone. No lights or radio.

Working as a photographer for Life magazine, Bourke-White also took this iconic photo of Gandhi and his spinning wheel.

The first superhero?Oct 18 2005

Out of a recent conversation popped this interesting question: who was the first superhero? After a short discussion and a few guesses (Superman, Batman, etc), it was agreed that this might be the most perfect question to ask the internet in the long history of questions.

The earliest superhero I could find reference to was Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, four years before Superman, who was probably the first popular superhero. Mandrake's super power was his ability to "make people believe anything, simply by gesturing hypnotically". Does anyone out there know of any superheroes who made an earlier media appearance?

There's a related question that has some bearing on the answer to the above question: what is a superhero? There have probably been books (or at least extensive Usenet threads) written on this topic, but a good baseline definition needs to acknowledge both the "super" and the "hero" parts. That is, the person needs to have some superhuman power or powers and has to fight the bad guys. But this basic definition is flawed. Superman is an alien, not human. Batman doesn't have any super powers...he's a self-made superhero like Syndrome in The Incredibles. Or can a superhero be anyone (human or no) that fights bad guys and is superior to normal heroes...the cream of the hero crop? And what about a costume or alter ego...are they essential for superheroism? These are all questions well-suited for asking the internet, so have at it: what's a good definition for a superhero?

And there's (at least) one more angle to this as well...where did the idea of the superhero come from? As Meg suggested to me at dinner last night, was there a cultural need for a superhero during a super-crisis like the Great Depression? Or did the idea evolve gradually from regular heros (cowboys, space cowboys, etc.) to heros who were magicians (with special powers...it's not that much of a stretch to imagine a magician possessing supernatural powers) to classic superheroes like Superman?

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