Picturing the Century

The Great Depression and the New Deal

The prosperity of the 1920s ended with an economic catastrophe of unequaled length and severity - the Great Depression. By 1933 industrial production had fallen to one-third its pre-Depression levels, thousands of banks were closed, and almost 13 million Americans were jobless. In cities, soup kitchens were commonplace, and in the countryside, crops rotted because farmers were unable to sell them.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" aimed at promoting economic recovery and putting Americans back to work through Federal activism. New laws regulated banking and the stock market. New Federal agencies attempted to control agricultural production, stabilize wages and prices, and create a vast public works program for the unemployed. These programs did not end the Great Depression, but they did correct many failures in the economic system and alleviate much suffering.

Many New Deal-era government agencies sponsored photography projects. For the most part, these projects used a "documentary" approach that emphasized straightforward scenes of everyday life or the environment. The projects also touted the social achievements of the New Deal or pointed out the need for further government reforms. Many notable 20th-century American photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, and Arthur Rothstein, worked for one or more of the Government photography projects. The projects and their World War II successors also opened doors for women and African Americans seeking careers in photography. Taken together, the images from these projects make for a detailed portrait of America during the 1930s and early 1940s.

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