Picturing Faith

Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Picturing Faith
    Book Description:

    In the midst of the Great Depression, the American government initiated one of the most ambitious national photographic projects ever undertaken. Such photographers as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks-all then virtually unknown-were commissioned to chronicle in pictures the economic struggle and social dislocation of the Depression era. They explored every facet of rural life in an effort to document the troubles, as well as the spirit, of the nation.

    Fanning out across the country, these photographers captured a nation alive with religious faith-from Dust Bowl migrants singing hymns to orthodox Jews praying in rural Connecticut. InPicturing Faith,the preeminent historian of religion Colleen McDannell recounts the history of this extraordinary project, telling the stories of the men and women who participated in it and exploring these little-known images of America.

    Lavishly illustrated,Picturing Faithteases out the various and conflicting ways that these photographers portrayed American religion and enhances our understanding of how religion was practiced during this critical period of American history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13007-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. 1 Introducing Americans to America
    (pp. 1-21)

    I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” Dorothea Lange remembered years later. “I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from...

  4. 2 Enduring Faith
    (pp. 23-51)

    We have a grave problem in this state of California,” Dorothea Lange wrote to Roy Stryker in 1937, “with these tens of thousands of drought people.” Lange had been traveling with her husband, the economist Paul Taylor, throughout California, taking pictures for the FSA. “They keep on arriving, and the [rain] is coming. The newspapers are playing headlines and no one has the solution. This is no longer a publicity campaign for migratory agricultural labor camps. This is a migration of people, and a rotten mess.”¹ Lange and Taylor were witnessing the living conditions of poor, mostly white workers who...

  5. 3 Churches Without People
    (pp. 53-77)

    In 1935 Walker Evans was adrift in New York City. At thirty-one, he had no job, no college degree, and no doting family. He had already begun, however, to construct himself as an artist. Ten years earlier, frustrated with his midwestern family, East Coast schooling, and boring New York job, he had left for Paris to pursue an impulse to write. There he hung out at Shakespeare and Company, watching from afar the literary stars of the 1920s. After returning to New York in 1927, he decided not to write but to take up photography as his artistic medium. Three...

  6. 4 Another South
    (pp. 79-111)

    Yesterday we went hunting for churches,” wrote Irene Delano to Roy Stryker, “and came upon one small Negro church where we got shots of all the deacons—the preacher—and the whole ‘meeting.’ ” Accompanying her husband Jack on his photographic tour of the South in the spring of 1941, Irene was captivated by rural religion. “One fellow sang in a booming voice—‘Trying to make one hundred, 99 ½ won’t do,’ ” she reported, “until all the hills around rocked in the rhythm! It’s amazing how they can sing so beautifully without the aid of any sort of musical...

  7. 5 Christian Charity
    (pp. 113-137)

    I’ve had two dark rainy days on which it was impossible to work outside so, I did a pretty complete story on the City Mission, community chest financed and operated by a Baptist minister who is quite a little stinker.” John Vachon was photographing in Iowa, and in April 1940 he was in Dubuque. “It really breaks my heart to hear this little Baptist say, ‘all right men, upstairs to bed’ after the hymns had been sung,” he wrote to Stryker. “They go up, fumigate their clothes, take showers, and go to bed about 8:30.” The only Catholic to work...

  8. 6 New Mexico’s Patriots
    (pp. 139-165)

    In late December 1942 John Collier, Jr., was overjoyed to be back in New Mexico. Although he had been born in New York and raised in California, he had lived for several years in New Mexico. “This is my home Roy,” he wrote to Stryker. “I can’t stay in the East indefinitely.” Collier’s letters reveal the excitement of a photographer who has happened onto what he called a “grand story.” The FSA was sponsoring a rural low-income medical program in the remote mountain area of northern New Mexico. Seven hundred fifty families with incomes of less than one hundred dollars...

  9. 7 Farming Jews
    (pp. 167-195)

    We’re still in Norwich and getting fed up with the rain,” Jack Delano complained to Stryker in November 1940. “The only heartening thing that happened in the last 5 days was yesterday when I spent some time in Colchester, (Conn). The town is an old New England settlement that has at various times been dominantly Yankee, Irish, German, and now Jewish.” From August 1940 to February 1941, Jack Delano and his new bride, Irene, traveled throughout the Northeast photographing shipyards, steel mills, aircraft factories, and a submarine base—in addition to the more typical dairy farms, tobacco fields, and potato...

  10. 8 The Negro Church
    (pp. 197-229)

    For weeks the churches on the South Side were gearing up to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church had presented its eleventh annual Palm Sunday “musicale,” featuring their hundred-voice choir singing Sir John Stainer’s “Crucifixion.” Opera singer Marian Anderson had performed at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater for the benefit of the Good Shepherd Community Center. The children were busy preparing for the Bud Billiken Easter music festival sponsored by the city’s African-American newspaper, theDefender.Many churches had held fund-raising fashion shows of spring finery, and everyone was trying to gather the appropriate clothing for the special...

  11. 9 City Congregations
    (pp. 231-267)

    Left Chicago this morning after a hell of a grueling job,” Russell Lee complained to Stryker. “I’m afraid I was tired when I started the job and by the end was not really much good and inclined to make errors. Then, too, Chicago is a very depressing place when taking pictures in the negro neighborhoods.”¹ Lee and Rosskam did make a series of errors in Chicago that shaped how the photographs were later “read.” They assumed that African-American religions were best understood through the lens of the Chicago School of sociology and that the “Negro church” had a set of...

  12. 10 Project’s End
    (pp. 269-278)

    Stryker’s hope that the Historical Section could be saved by providing pictures for the Office of War Information was short-lived. By early 1943 the pressures of war had made it next to impossible for the project to continue. Gas and rubber rationing had made the peripatetic life of the photographers unfeasible. Local officials, who always were suspicious of federal workers, now could cast their distrust of strangers in patriotic terms. As early as 1940 Marion Post wrote to Stryker, “Everyone is so hysterically war and fifth column minded. You’d be amazed. So suspicious. Even the little Cajun children in La....

  13. Notes
    (pp. 279-302)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 303-306)
  15. Index
    (pp. 307-319)