Critical essays about photography, such as James Goodwin’s “The Depression Era in Black and White,” tend to irritate me, and generally come off as pretentious, because I feel that really great photographs can almost always speak for themselves. The stark and striking pictures presented along with his article do just that. While his inclusion of history between assessments is compelling, his critiques are pretty stale and didn’t do much to help me understand the photographs. I was thankful, though, to get a look at some of the books he was discussing, including Dorthea Lange and Paul Taylor’s American Exodus and James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Walker and Lange’s photos are intriguing and beautiful, in a kind of bleak, and sometimes even ugly, way. Evans’ work, especially, has both sobering and brutal qualities to it that really draw me in. His photos have a very subtle, yet still very apparent, power to them that allows them to exist as something much greater than simple, run-of-the-mill portraits-of-poor-folk-making-it-on-their-own-during-the-Depression. The simplicity of the style helps the complexity of the subject matter really shine through, and also speaks to the power of the standard, clean black-and-white photography.
Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s American Road Trip, a portrayal of the same time period, but from the foreigner’s perspective, was more entertaining than the aforementioned books, but still offered up crisp and interesting pictures. They depict an alternative aspect of the era, however, one in which life is still going on, and people are traveling in their cars and gas station attendants seem to be thrilled to provide aid when they need directions to the next town, the next gas station. Ilf and Petrov’s photos have a curious and excited tone to them, opposed to the markedly serious and journalistic photographs taken by Lange and Evans for their books. Because of that, though, a heavier weight is placed on the accompanying text. Fortunately, the writing is amusing and complements the lighter attitude of the photos well. In presenting more everyday aspects of the Depression-era story, some of the anecdotes tend to resonate a little more clearly today. One was about a jobless and homeless man who co-writes a book documenting the stories of those “who’d fallen through the cracks in society, the ones who’d been forgotten” (33) only to have the manuscript taken away after a beating by the cops. He recognizes the need for a full-scale societal change, but he proposes bringing it about by taking all but five million dollars of every rich person’s wealth.
This reminded me of the present American society’s debate over health care reform, in which many are defending a system that is generally broken, simply because changing it could become complicated. For some reason, people are worried about those huge, wealthy companies, just as that jobless man, who had seen no help while seeking work across the country for five years, was concerned that less than five million dollars just “won’t do.”