Published: October 28, 2003
The Great Depression of the 1930s had a profound effect on the lives of Americans, from artists and writers to factory workers and families. Several agencies under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration were established to come to the public’s aid.
Among them, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) addressed the problem of the unemployed professional (including artists) by creating jobs for millions; and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documented the widespread poverty and economic distress in order to procure assistance for farmers.
Now an exhibition at The New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library (Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street), “Depression-era Prints and Photographs from the WPA and FSA,” provides a visual testimony to this most difficult period by showcasing the work of printmakers and photographers working in New York and its environs during the 1930s and 40s. The exhibition, in the Print and Stokes Galleries on the Third Floor, will remain on view through January 17. Admission is free.
By employing some 5,000 artists in more than 1,000 cities, the WPA helped foster a distinctly American art. The artists created murals, easel paintings, sculptures and prints. The exhibition focuses on the latter, made in the New York workshop of the WPA between 1935 and 1943. Among the 56 visually compelling prints are works by Albert Abramowitz (1879-1963), Nan Lurie (born 1910), Louis Lozowick (1892-1973) and Raphael Soyer (1899-1987).
Although FSA photographs documenting America’s rural development are well known, those portraying life in the urban and suburban environments of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the focus of this part of the exhibition, are far less familiar. Taken in the 1930s and 40s, the photographs became more than just documentary evidence, but recognized works of art. Among the 73 images on view are works by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985), John Collier (1913-1992), Russell Lee (1903-1986) and Jack Delano (1914-1997).
In 1935, a portion of the funding for the Works Progress Administration was designated for unemployed writers, actors, musicians and artists. The WPA’s Graphic Arts Division, New York workshop, employed 80 artists, 53 of whom are represented in the exhibition. They were given a salary, supplies and access to a professional printer at a workshop. Working with the WPA opened up new worlds to many of the participants, and, unfettered by financial worries, many felt free to experiment creatively.
The 56 prints on display reflect a wide range of artistic styles and mediums, and the subject matter, though rooted unmistakably in the 1930s and 40s, not only depicts the hardships of the Depression, but includes portraits of everyday people, city scenes and rural landscapes, and even humorous situations.
Some subject matter in the “Prints” section of the exhibition is mirrored on the “Photographs” side. For example, in her 1939 lithograph “Summer Night,” Mabel Dwight (1876-1955), shows a scene dominated by a clothes line strung between buildings, while photographer Russell Lee (1903-1986) depicts “clothes washings between 138th and 139th street apartments” in a 1936 silver gelatin print.
When the WPA program ended in 1943 and the New York workshop closed, approximately 1,200 prints were deposited with the print collection of The New York Public Library, where they are regularly used as a reference source by scholars and researchers.
To legitimize assistance programs for farmers, the federal government launched a propaganda campaign in 1935 to publicize the widespread poverty and economic distress of the country. Roy E. Stryker (1882-1975) directed a federal photography project within several New Deal agencies, including the Resettlement Administration, the Office of War Information and the Farm Security Administration. The photographers he hired — most are now considered masters — included both established artists such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and John Collier, and newcomers like Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985). The works they produced include some of the most iconic and widely recognized images in history.
Displayed with the photographs are direct transcriptions of captions from the reverse side of the images, written by the photographers and FSA staff. They often add a poignant sense of time and place, providing a small window into people’s lives during the Depression. An image by Arthur Rothstein is captioned, “Girl picker at cranberry bog. Three-fourths of cranberry pickers are children.” Another, by Delano, explains: “Mr and Mrs Edward L. Gay, and their children. He is a dairy and poultry farmer. Has a 23-acre farm in Groton, Conn. And was completely flooded out during the hurricane.”
“Depression-era Pints and Photographs from the WPA and FSA” is co-curated by Margaret Glover of The New York Public Library’s Print Collection. The exhibition draws exclusively from the 1943 allocation to the Pint Collection, and from the approximately 40,000 photographs transferred to the Wallach Division’s Photography Collection, and celebrates the unique relationship between the government and the arts.
Exhibition hours are Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 am to 7:30 pm; Thursday through Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm; closed Sundays, Mondays, and national holidays. Admission is free. For information, 212-869-8089, or visit www.nypl.org.
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