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From Riches to Rags—a History of Depression-Era Photography

During the 1930s, American photographers documenting economic distress across the country created indelible impressions of poverty and deprivation. But the Depression didn’t put an end to artistic experimentation. Numerous photographers used the medium to create studies of form, and portrait photographers explored new ways to portray members of their community. A new exhibition, “From Riches to Rags: Photography in the Depression,” draws on the rich collection of 20th century photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art to show how master photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Imogen Cunningham, Paul Strand and others moved photography forward over the course of the decade.

Organized by curator of photography Barbara Tannenbaum, the show, on view until December 31, features 47 images. Several images by Alfred Stieglitz are included in the show. Among them are the first photos that the museum collected in 1935, when it acquired several Stieglitz prints. A restless experimenter who moved between portraits, documentary images, nudes and formalist studies, Stieglitz symbolizes the complexity and variation in photographic expression of the 1930s, and his work forms the heart of “From Riches to Rags.”

The show sets up many comparisons between photos taken in different places and under different circumstances. A studio portrait by James Van Der Zee of a dapper Harlem resident contrasts with Walker Evans’s image of Allie Mae Burroughs, a sharecropper’s wife, smiling bashfully as she looks into the lens. Arthur Rothstein, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, is represented in the exhibition by his iconic 1936 photo of a father and his children walking through a dust storm to their battered farmhouse. In the same year that Rothstein was documenting the Dust Bowl, Edward Weston made a very different study of a sandy landscape. His “Dunes, Oceano” is an image of undulating sand dunes outlined by ribbons of light and shadow. It complements Imogen Cunningham’s photo of an agave plant and its shadow on a white wall. In addition to these recognizable images, the show includes lesser known gems, such as a Cleveland street scene by Lawrence Blazey.

The variety of images in the show represents how creatively fertile the decade was. A statement from the museum notes, “Like our own complex and unsettled era, the 1930s seemed to call for and appreciate multiple styles of and approaches to photography.” —Holly Stuart Hughes

Related Stories:
Walker Evans’s Vernacular America
Dorothea Lange’s Politics of Seeing
Grant Opportunity: How to Pitch the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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