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Old Images of the New Deal

April 06, 1990|KENNETH WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — "Official Images: New Deal Photography," an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, offers a look at what the Great Depression was like as seen through the eyes of the federal government.

Continuing through Saturday at the Anaheim Museum's Plaza Gallery, it includes 80 photographs, selected from more than 250,000 provided by the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Originally seen in books, newspapers, magazines and on posters, they show farmers, factory workers, older Americans, children, the unemployed and young people working in government training programs. The government employed hundreds of photographers, and the exhibit features such artists as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and Russell Lee.

The photographs started out as part of an ambitious public relations program involving five New Deal relief agencies: the Farm Security Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration. The idea was to rally support for Franklin D. Roosevelt's economic policies. However, each photo varied widely in quality and intent, and bore the specific thematic signature of the commissioning agency.

Many of the images subsidized by the Farm Security Administration, for instance, emphasized the human consequences of the economic crisis. In one, a parade of evicted sharecroppers huddle with their belongings along a lonely dirt highway in Missouri. Others show workers walking a picket line and families living in dilapidated shacks. By contrast, photographs by the Department of Agriculture were generally uplifting, intended to instill confidence in the agency's programs. They show contented farmers, youngsters posing with prize-winning livestock and friendly government agents helping farmers work more efficiently. In one shot, a people stand around a slaughtered hog while three tie-clad government workers give a primer on the finer points of meat-cutting.

The most artistically diverse photographs were those commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, a 1930s forerunner of today's National Endowment for the Arts. WPA photographers were given a great deal of freedom and their images are less structured and more substantive. Those on display include children playing on the fire escapes of run-down tenements, an Art-Deco Greyhound bus terminal, and a young girl doing sketches in a children's art class in New York.

"Official Images: New Deal Photography" continues through Saturday at the Anaheim Museum's satellite gallery at the Anaheim Plaza, 500 N. Euclid St., Anaheim. Hours: 2 to 8 p.m. Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday. Information: (714) 778-3301.

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