The Public Record: Photographs of the Great Depression from the J. Paul Getty Museum
To a remarkable degree, the American public’s concept of the Great Depression—both at the time and now—was informed by images taken by a small group of photographers working for the government. Under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration, young and, at the time largely unknown, artists like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein were hired to travel throughout the country and, initially, to record the effects of the Depression on the land and the people. The intent was specific—to generate support for Roosevelt’s New Deal programs—and the resulting photographs, some of which were widely published, became imprinted in the public consciousness. More than any single image, Lange’s Migrant Mother became identified with the Depression and the hardships it caused.
The exhibition was selected by Judith Keller, Associate Curator of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, from that institution’s extraordinary collection. It was organized in cooperation with Pomona College’s Hart Institute for American History, which is dedicated to the study of history through an intense focus on original documents, and in conjunction with a series of lectures and seminars given by political historian Alan Brinkley. The “documents” upon which Brinkley focused were the photographs of Dorothea Lange, and the exhibition was designed in part to enhance this exploration by examining the nature of documentary “truth” and the ways in which our understanding of history is constructed.