The Grest Depression in 50 Images at Smith College


Dust Bowl of Dog Soup: Picturing the Great Depression
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through May 24, 2020

I’m sure you remember this century’s recession (2008-10). Some places have yet to recover. Perhaps some of you are old enough to recall that the one during the 1970s (1973-1981) was much worse. Nothing in your memory can compare to the Great Depression (1929-41), the greatest economic disaster in American history. Nearly one in three workers was unemployed and if we toss in those forced into casual labor, those on strike, the underemployed, and those who became hoboes, by 1932 about 50% of all American families suffered some form of economic dislocation. If you can imagine it, conditions were even worse in the countryside. A severe drought rocked every state in the Union except Vermont and Maine. In many places, high winds blew away the topsoil down to the bedrock, a cataclysm known as the Dust Bowl.

A show at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) features 50 remarkable images that document hard times during the 1930s. “Documents” is the correct word; despite the tragedy in front of the lenses and sketch pads, the 1930s was a golden age for documentarians. Courtesy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the government actually hired unemployed artists and writers to make sure future generations would understand the human cost of the economic crisis. The only other silver lining in all of this is that women made their mark in ways they might not have otherwise. Dorothea Lange took what is arguably the most famous photograph in American history: “Migrant Mother,” an image reproduced so often there is no need to describe it. Is it even possible to discuss the Depression without seeing it? The SCMA has a print, but it’s not the center of Dust Bowl of Dog Soup.
The bulk of the photos at the SCMA are from Arthur Rothstein (1915-85). He was/is highly regarded, but generally takes a backseat to more famous colleagues such as Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Russell Lee. There is no point to comparisons, but few photojournalists were as active as Rothstein. Nor did many surpass his sensitivity to his subjects.

Rothstein was an unlikely recorder of rural woes. Who could have imagined that the son of Jewish immigrants who grew up and lived in New York City would be comfortable tramping through the American backwaters? Or that one who had never turned a spade of dirt would relate to farmers and migrants, or feel their despair over silted over fields, toiling in mines, and being forced onto the road in jalopies held together with bailing wire?

By featuring Rothstein photos from its collections, the SCMA show encourages us to look deeply into his images. In a way, Depression Era photo shows are often akin to the permanent collections at big museums. By this I mean that visitors tend to give short shrift to artists with big talent but little fame. Can you name another work at the Louvre that’s in the same room as the Mona Lisa? Rothstein was a great photographer and seeing his work out of the shadow of his more celebrated peers drives this home. Check out his images from Gee’s Bend, that African-American enclave of Alabama that would later win renown for its quilters.

Rothstein isn’t the only artist in the show, nor is photography the only medium presented. Henry Sternberg gives us a slice of urban life in his 1930 etching “Subway Car.” Peggy Bacon used pastels in “Hectic Life” to capture the pulse of the street, and Riva Helfond used lithography in her “Custom Made” to depict a seamstress toiling at home. You can be assured it was for a pittance. Irwin Hoffman turned to etching for strong images of work in “The Stoker” (1935) and of those relying on charity in “Soup Kitchen” (1934).  

The SCMA exhibition also shows another side of the Depression. With just a few carefully curated examples from magazines and popular publications, we see that not even indescribable poverty slowed the pace of commercial advertising. Think it’s difficult to flog soap, lurid fiction, or over-the-counter remedies during the Depression? Think again.

Hats off to the SCMA for a small show that screams social significance in ways that splashy blockbusters seldom do. Hie thee hence to this thoughtful exhibit.

Rob Weir


Unknown said...

Thanks so much for your extensive review. It is always harder to draw attention to the smaller exhibits in our museum and I am always happy when people find them and appreciate them.

Henriette Kets de Vries (Curator of the Dog Soup exhibit)

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