Windows to a Collective Past

James Swensen’s recently published book, Picturing Migrants, explores how art and literature have created our collective recollection of the Great Depression.

Dorthea Lange's Migrant Mother (1936)

Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936)

PROVO, Utah (May 20, 2016)—The images are easily recognizable: a mother, surrounded by her children, her worried gaze directed off to some unknown distant scene; families packed in old cars, all of their earthly possessions strapped to the top and back of the dusty vehicle; long, barren, open roads leading from the drought-stricken Midwest to the hope of the West. Commissioned by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration photography program, the images have become iconic. The experiences these images reflected were put into words in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that told the story of a fictional family travelling from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California.

picturing migrants

James Swensen’s new book explores how our collective remembrance of the Great Depression is formed by art.

These words and images have formed our collective memory of the Great Depression and are the subject of James Swensen’s new book, Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Documentary Photography. He has also recently published an article entitled “Maynard Dixon and the Forgotten Man” that looks at the continuing importance of the painting.

“I didn’t set out to be a Great Depression scholar . . . but it is a period that is fascinating,” Swensen explained. Swensen began the book while working on his dissertation. Influenced by work on his master’s thesis in which he studied Dorthea Lange’s photography in Utah, the book looks at a “constant back and forth” between the novel and the photography that Swensen found fascinating.

The interchange between The Grapes of Wrath and the iconic Farm Security Administration photographs is exemplified by the works of Russell Lee. With the mixed reception of the novel, Lee decided to go to Oklahoma and take a series of photographs staged to reflect Steinbeck’s book – to find “the real Joads,” the fictional family that is the center of the novel. Using the family of Elmer Thomas, a real family who were leaving the Midwest for California, as his focus, Lee illustrated the process of migration described by Steinbeck in the first few chapters of the book. The accompanying images brought the Joads’ story to life. “You get this wonderful play between fiction and nonfiction, just like you would in a painting or photograph,” Swensen said.

Russell Lee's photograph of the Elmer Thomas family as they prepare to leave.

Russell Lee’s photograph of the Elmer Thomas family as they prepare to leave.

But novels and photographs are seldom taken for art alone. “The photographs, we tend to forget, were really created for propaganda for the New Deal,” Swensen explained. With the country in economic peril, the government needed support for the New Deal programs, particularly for the aid of rural populations. To this end, the Farm Security Administration sent out photographers to document the migrants moving from the Dust Bowl stricken areas to California. The Grapes of Wrath was created with a purpose too. It gave a greater depth to the plight of the people captured in the photographs.

It is these exact purposes that make our collective remembrance of the Great Depression based on these images and words problematic. “They don’t tell us everything about what it was like to live in the Great Depression,” Swenson said. “They do highlight certain elements of it, but like all histories there are holes, gaps in what we know. They may represent certain populations well but completely neglect others.” Though they ignored urban populations, these rural images became the window to the era for those who did not live through those hard times.

Photography is not the only artistic medium to reflect the Great Depression. Painting also influences how the era is remembered. Maynard Dixon, the artist of focus of Swensen’s article, was married to photographer Lange. Their work, though in different mediums, reflected each other. “He was able to encapsulate in a painting what he felt about what was happening around him, his anxieties, his fears. He was able to construct it,” Swensen said. Lange, on the other hand, worked in a slightly trickier medium: she would “have to take as opposed to make.” Instead of being able to create whatever she wanted, as Dixon did in painting, Lange and other photographers had to situate what was available to create the same emotion in her art. Despite their different mediums, however, Swensen explained that there is a connection between the two artists’ works: “Dixon is responding to what his wife’s doing because she’s actually going out there and finding these individuals and creating these images that highlight the despair and the desperate times. . . . It’s a dialogue that’s always predicated on content.”

And just like painting, photographers were making specific choices with their art. “They’re editing,” Swensen said. Photography was not necessarily the completely objective form that we sometimes like to think it is. The camera only captures a certain amount of a space, and which part of that space the photographer selects can tell a certain story. Swensen recalled going to locations Lange photographed and seeing the difference between her camera’s view and what was just behind it.

Despite the potential fallacies of photography and art, Swensen still says they are powerful tools, both in the era they were created and now. “It’s not predetermined that our vision or window of this period of time, this rocky period of time . . . should be a novel or these F.S.A. photographs,” he said. And yet, they have become the emblems of that era.

Swensen compared the power of the Great Depression photographs to the photographs of today’s refugee crisis. “Migrations have always been happening, bad times have always been happening, but through imagery . . . we get a sense of the human element of what it really means,” he said. “Statistics and numbers may give part of the story, but you need imagery. . . . They provide not just the physical details of what the Great Depression was like, but the spirit and the heart of what it was to experience it.”

Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Photography is a finalist in the non-fiction category for the Oklahoma Book Award, and “Maynard Dixon and the Forgotten Man” has been published in Locating American Art, Finding Art’s Meaning in Museums Colonial Period to Present, edited by Cynthia Fowler.

—Alison Siggard (B.A. English Education ’17)

Alison covers American Studies for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.