Economic Iconic Imagery:
History Repeating Itself . . . or at Least Casting an Echo
B. Scott Crawford
A truly iconic image is coming to Roanoke as part of an upcoming temporary exhibition at the Taubman Museum of Art. This particular image probably captures the pain and suffering brought on by the Great Depression better than any other. The image, typically referred to as Migrant Mother, strikes at the heart of humanity as it depicts a down trodden mother with her children. Dorothea Lange, the photographer, captured this image of Florence Leona Thompson and her children sometime in March 1936 after the Thompsons were temporarily stranded in a migrant settlement off US Highway 101 in California. The Thompsons had been picking beets and were moving to find more work when their car broke down. In this image we see the worry, desperation, and anxiety the Depression brought to thousands of woman who were trying to provide for their children. And yet, within this gaze there is strength and determination; the economy has not beaten Florence Thompson!
Florence Thompson was married for the second time in 1936. Her first husband was Leroy C. Owens, and according to the 1930 census they had five children and had been married for eight years. Sometime in 1931, possibly 1932, Owens died, and by 1936 Florence had married George Thompson. It is clearly a child Florence had with Thompson that she holds in her arms, while the other two children are most likely from her marriage to Owens. While Florence, by 1936, was trying to take care of her children as she followed her husband as he moved from place to place trying to find work, in 1930 it appears Florence had a somewhat more stable life as her husband at the time was a “clean up man” in a sawmill, suggesting a life less migratory in nature.
While the individual image of this “migrant mother” is probably the most generally recognized, in actuality, Lange shot a series of photos using Thompson and her children as subjects. As with the image above, each image in the series does more than simply capture the plight of an average American family negatively impacted by forces larger than life: an economy run amuck! What we find in this series is a reflection of suffering and determination; the American spirit hurt but not broken. In essence, Lange humanizes what statistics cannot do. Lange takes statistics and gives numbers related to the economy that were unprecedented and gives them a human face. In essence, her images are what roughly 25% unemployment actually looks like. Her images are what a migrant workforce looks like; a workforce unsure if work even exists around the next turn in a very long road. President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged photographers to document the human suffering related to the Depression so such images could in turn bring support for the New Deal as he tried to pull the nation out of a crisis unlike any the nation had faced, at least in regard to economic instability. Art thus became a way the president could give an actual face to human suffering in order to bring about support for his overall political agenda.
Unfortunately, a similar economic crisis, but by no means as bad, has wrecked havoc with the United States’ economy recently. The fallout of the housing market has sent ripple effects through the economy that has brought homelessness to groups who once thought they were secure and has pushed unemployment to levels that are uncomfortably high, albeit not as high as during the Great Depression. In some ways, new and unprecedented government legislation has resembled the unprecedented legislation tied to the New Deal. With this economic downturn we have witnessed bailouts, printing money to avoid deflation, and increased legislation to “reign in” elicit activity in the financial industry. In a Keynesian manner somewhat aligned with some of the policies of FDR, government has stepped in to steer the nation’s economy back into more navigable waters.
Interestingly, a different photographic documentary has unfolded in regard to the recent recession. While I am sure images exist that chronicle the human suffering tied to recent issues related to the economy, I have not seen anything quite as moving and gripping as Lange’s photographs. What I have seen is an emphasis on anger and outrage directed toward Wall Street, the increasingly generic term used to refer to “capitalism,” banking, and the wealthy. Interestingly, President Roosevelt, when advancing programs to combat the Great Depression, initiated such programs to keep such anger and even revolutionary rhetoric at bay. Roosevelt, while instituting what many would refer to as “socialist” programs, was passionate about insuring the nation’s democratic-republican ideals were not shattered. He was witnessing in Europe how a poor economy could easily turn individuals into desperate souls looking for answers in more forceful solutions such as fascism. Roosevelt did not want revolution; he wanted economic stability to keep revolution out of people’s minds. Roosevelt did not want class warfare; he wanted the democratic-republican experiment to survive. To Roosevelt, survival meant a more energetic government in the economic arena.
In the media and in the so-called “Occupy Movement,” we hear much about greed; almost as if greed were something the generation of businessmen operating in the 1980s and forward invented. However, a political cartoon published in 1898 reveals that greed has been with the nation throughout its rise as a commercial power. In the image, depicted below, Greed is “personified” as a vampire bat! The target of the cartoon is the newly emerging department stores, the venue through which mass production could thrive. The department store becomes the nest from which Greed operates. The nest is littered with the bones of the victims of the department store and commercialism.
Recently at a Gathering in the Galleries event we discussed a genre of art that became popular toward the end of the 19th century, coinciding with the rise of department stores. The painting we discussed, pictured below, was The Faithful Colt, by William Harnett, ca. 1890. The Faithful Colt was part of a genre that concentrated on extreme trompe l’oeil thus allowing the viewers to, for a moment, be deceived into thinking that they were actually viewing various American Civil War artifacts that are the focus of the work. Arguably, the emerging department store window scenes that were similarly decorated as they displayed various products for sale influenced this genre. The window displays were intended to stop pedestrians on the streets, attract their attention, and lure them into the store to buy whatever it was that was on display. The opening scene of A Christmas Story, though set in the mid-twentieth century, captures the power such window displays could have on potential consumers. As the image below depicts, these windows truly had a mesmerizing effect. To the creator of the political cartoon above, such trickery was driven by greed.
Of course, greed was nothing new to late 19th century Americans. Just as banking was beginning to truly emerge in the Western world, as the sin of usury was becoming less of a focus, thus allowing Christians to lend money and charge interest, Hieronymus Bosch reflected on greed as he created a panel in a triptych he painted sometime around 1487. In this portion of the triptych, pictured below, Bosch shows us a man in bed as Death makes his appearance at the door, armed with an arrow to end the man’s life. Surrounding the man are demons. One demon holds out a sack of gold, which distracts the man as an angel tries desperately to save the man’s soul by directing his attention away from the money and toward the light of Heaven shining through a Crucifix in a window above. With the man focusing on the sack held by the demon, and thus succumbing to greed, the angel is fighting a lost cause. Bosch also reflects greed through the cleric in the room who is not performing his religious duty and administering the man’s Last Rights but is already, before the man has even died, ruffling through the man’s belongings to see what he can take!
Greed is clearly nothing new, and while it may be one of the many variables that have brought about the recent economic downturn, it is by no means entirely the fuel driving economic crisis. And yet, continually this “sin” emerges as the focus of so much political rhetoric.
Unlike Lange, who tapped into a humanity through her photographs that is stunning, imagery tied to the Occupy Movement has focused on anger. While we are still too close to truly analyze what we have witnessed and detect truly iconic imagery tied to the recent recession along the lines of Migrant Mother, there is one image that most assuredly will be tied to the recession that will be somewhat iconic: the Guy Fawkes masks Occupy protesters have embraced.
The somewhat ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks have provided the Occupy protesters with an image to unite them. In actuality, the masks became popular when the hacking group Anonymous wore them during protests before the recent financial turmoil. Nonetheless, the masks have come to signify a broader movement than Anonymous. But why Guy Fawkes? Why turn to what for all purposes was a terrorist who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605? Well, as Billy Hallowell has pointed out in a short piece he recently wrote, it is more the romanticized Guy Fawkes the protesters embrace rather than the historical Guy Fawkes who allowed religious zealotry, in this case Catholicism, to take him to the brink of bringing down a government building and killing who knows how many government officials. According to Hallowell, the protesters have embraced a version of Guy Fawkes depicted in comic books and in the movie V for Vendetta. In the movie, the character V wears a Guy Fawkes mask as he fights against a totalitarian regime in the near future. In fact, in the image above of the two Occupy protesters, the protester on the right holds a grammatically incorrect sign quoting V: “People shouldn’t be afraid of thier [sic] government; government should be afraid of it’s [sic] people!”
No matter how Guy Fawkes emerged as the hero of choice for Anonymous and the Occupy Movement, the mask associated with Fawkes is currently the iconic image tied to these movements. Will this image become the image symbolizing the recession of 2008, or will other images become more important? It is hard to say at this point, but what is possibly most evident is that this image will not resonate with mainstream America as much as Lange’s photograph of Florence Thompson. And that is what ultimately makes Lange’s photography important. Through subject, lighting, and composition, Lange captures a story of finding strength when facing adversity. Her photographs have a psychological edge that is quite powerful, even timeless. Thus, her work is worthy of our praise, admiration, and interest, and I hope you will find the time to see these works when they are in Roanoke!
And if you are wondering, it appears that Florence Thompson survived the Great Depression and lived until 1983 when cancer and apparently a heart condition took her life. Her tombstone reads:
“FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”
Pictured above, Florence Thompson (seated) with her daughters