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jeffcornish


This is a favorite photograph of mine. It was taken by Margaret Bourke-White and appeared in the February 15, 1937 issue of Life Magazine.

This was taken during the Great Depression. My grandparents and parents used to talk about how terrible a time it was for the country. To me it was a history lesson that was well-illustrated in photos like this one. I never imagined a time like this could exist until today.

I like a lot about this photo and it has influenced my photography. Many of my pictures focus on distress, irony and sarcasm.

Personally, I rebel against the load of guano we are fed by politicians, advertisers, big business and governments. Maybe today the picture would have more diversity to define “The American Way”. But that would only be done to garner votes and sales. The living people in the photo would still be the same.

Supposedly, the people standing on line were flood victims…like Katrina!

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yellodog
That's a classic shot I can't remember having seen before. Thanks for the introduction.
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revenant
Unlike the FSA documents from the same period, the irony in this one is palpable, perhaps because it was part of the legendary series "Life" and later "Time-Life" pioneered and which certainly turned the world's focus on the "American Way of Life".

As an Alien (which is how we non-Americans are welcomed at US international airports - that and the extreme suspicion evidenced by US Customs officials), I wonder whether my American friends see this image as others do. I note the preponderance of what are coyly referred to these days as "African Americans" in this image and all the stereotypes acquired, instilled or just replaced by prejudice come to my mind, not helped by the fact that the poster shows a white family (would that be American-Americans? - Roosevelt's bold assertion that there is no such thing as a hyphenated American has been proved very wrong). Even the mutt's white...

But above all, I see enormous patience, or perhaps resignation - are they queuing for the soup kitchen?

Margaret Bourke-White was an extraordinary photographer - the first woman war correspondent (I believe) and the first woman photographer to document life in the Soviet Union. I am happy that Jeff has shared this outstanding woman's work.

I'm also touched by Jeff's comment that people in this photograph would be the same today. Leaving aside the wider issues, this "share" for me proves yet again that great images are timeless. Thanks, Jeff!
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va000119
The irony of `Arthur Millers` American dream depicted in the background in a cartoonlike format, as opposed to the true life drama revealed in the foreground. The photograph highlights the many differences between grit filled reality and the make believe.I like the feeling you get that that line, comes in on the right ,out on the left and is possibly never ending.
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NellyBly
I could have guessed this photo came from a Life magazine..I have saved several old ones that were my mom's..I also am disgusted at how we are fed information the politicians spin to us that they just want us to hear, that they think we want to hear with no intention of carrying through with it..good thoughtful choice..
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liveandletlive
I love it. I agree with what both revenant and va000119 had to say.
This came at a really cool time for me because I recently re-watched "What Women Want" and when Mel Gibson's character comments on a grouping of photos on her wall, Helen Hunt's character thinks to herself, "He has no idea they're all Margaret Bourke-White"
After watching it, I immediately Googled Margaret Bourke-White because the name was so familiar but I honestly couldn't remember any photographs. I spent a lot of time looking at them and found they all said so much. Thank you for sharing with us Jeff.
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lookwhatisaw
I like the actual picture, the 30s mode of the billboard and the line of people under it. I like your choice.

However, I agree with many others here: my mother's family also suffered terribly under the Great Depression: all were affected and in all sorts of ways. The impression this gives is an absurd distortion despite the reality of what I imagine those people in line were experiencing. Still, it speaks of a time when such distortions were exactly what certain people and groups in society at that time meant to project in order to cover the ugliness of reality. (Clearly, intentions to distort still exist today, and not just with the U.S.)

I don't know enough about this photographer to say what her intent was; nonetheless, it causes us to question all sorts of things and that is one of the other reasons why I like your choice of this photo.
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revenant
I'm rather sorry I started that hare because I'm sure Bourke-White did not intend anything racist in this image. However, the contrast between the make-believe world shown in the ad and the reality immediately beneath it is made only starker by the differences in who is portrayed. There are enough FSA photographs of desperately poor white people to dispel any notion that only African-Americans suffered.

This is part of the problem of an iconic image; it encapsulates an idea, but doesn't represent the whole truth. For example, probably the most iconic image of the Vietnam war for most people will be that wrenching picture of a naked napalmed girl screaming and running toward the camera. It's hideous and so very expressive that it colours everyone's ideas about the war and contrasts with that other iconic war image of raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Perhaps pictures shouldn't speak.

With that said, I am ashamed to confess that most of the iconic images I know of from the first half of the 20th century documenting America pay little attention to the grinding misery experienced by native Americans or Americans with Hispanic, Asian or African roots. There are notable exceptions. To name but two, Franz Boas, the "father of American anthropology" was a photographer (with an academic, as opposed to aesthetic interest) and Lewis Hine (the subject of a serious retrospective at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris at present) produced some heart-breaking images at Ellis Island. I'm sure there are many more.
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danrav
Jeff, a tremendous picture for your pick. You are spot on regarding the focus of many of your photographs being influenced by this piece. It is what makes your pictures most appealing to me as they echo my own thoughts and sentiments.

Having said that, I also know that you hold these same sentiments regarding all world governments and peoples who are disproportionately hurt by bad policy, practice and hate.Not just in America. In your introduction to the work, you do use the word "governments"..

I like this shot so much because it does illustrate social sickness of one type that existed then and now, not only in America, but in every country throughout the world.

On the positive side, it does speak of a really great thing about being American. We Americans are our own worst critics when it comes to pointing out our own problems. I am proud of you as an American for focusing your social commentary on America's ills, past and present and not making PBer's from other countries feel angry and resentful for having their noses pushed into their own country's shortcomings.

Bravo to you Jeff and all of the other PBers who chose not to pile on Jeff's social commentary about America.
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bumpusdogs
This is a wonderful choice for a favorite photo. Having been a photojournalist for large parts of my life I am very familiar with this photo and Bourke-White. From what I remember reading this was NOT a set up photo, it was a food line for flood victims.

The composition is incredible and it speaks to the power of the photo that it can still inspire political and socioeconomic debate even today.

wonderful choice
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SADHYA
She was certainly not making a comment about racism. Her photograph illustrates clearly the division between the haves, and the have nots at that time.She worked all her life for the poor and oppressed in many countries of the world. She and her then husband Erskine Caldwell (God's Little Acre, and Tobacco Road)produced a book called You have seen their faces, about the poverty stricken people of the American South. Her impact on photojournalism was enormous. She was one of the truly greats.
"Utter truth is essential and that is what stirs me when I look through the camera". - Margaret Bourke-White

Thanks so much Jeff.
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abstractlight
I don't believe there 's a camera-carrying photographer in the world that would not have taken this shot; its paradox is irresistible; the fact the Bourke-White's sensitivities were finely honed to the condition of her time makes it inevitable. I'm not sure that haves and have-nots is particularly at issue here; as mentioned the queue is for flood relief; if you look closely at the apparel of the people in the queue they are well dressed; they have experienced disaster and are waiting for assistance which is the mark of what a civilised country can do for its people. The rather more frightening resonance is in the echo in modern times of what happened in the 30's; when money became worthless and even the wealthy became desperate, followed puppet leaders; when patience wears thin amongst the two generations who have come to believe in the "American dream" (as a generic term for the capitalist one throughout North America and Europe) and regard it as their birthright, and suddenly there isn't enough to go round. To what disorder will the orderly queue descend?

thanks for sharing this thought provoking picture
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revenant
One of the many rewarding things about this project is to read as many views as there are comments. Again, thanks Jeff for sharing this image and your thoughts behind it. Very instructive!
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longimanus
I adore Bourke-White`s fearless, scrupulous approach to facts. And great to see her work is chosen as a favourite by a man ;) its a brilliant image, deceptively simple yet with a universal message, not limited to any time nor to any people.
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marilynx
Sad and submissive. I see acquiescence and compliance.
I also see orderliness, discipline and ... a pecking order !
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yellodog
I find it fascinating that the race has become such a touchy matter in the States that people immediately think of hidden agendas when they see this picture. Those were other times, another more segregated USA. It would probably be quite natural not to see whites in a food line in a black neighbourhood back then. About the same time Jeffs picture was taken, so was this:


Having said that I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to how much things have changed. Most of the news footage from New Orleans around the time of Hurricane Katrina, of all the people who didn't have the means to leave the city, could just as soon have been taken in Haiti. Note bene, I'm not in anyway belittling the suffering of whites or any other race during the the great depression or after the hurricane. I'm just sayin'.
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lookagain
Jeff, I don't remember seeing this - thanks for bringing it to our attention. The photographer was a genius to capture this moment and she did it brilliantly.

Times have certainly changed in the past 70+ years and this photo is solid evidence that this is true. Almost everything and everyone is a product of the times as is the billboard ad in the photo. I suppose in years to come they'll look at the adverts, TV programs, and magazines of us all and wonder "what were they thinking?"

The meaning of this photo for me, however, is neither about race or a particular nationality, but about the wide chasm between the rich and the poor of humanity. The faces of haves and have-nots of any country back then or now could be transposed on onto this photo with similar contrasting effect. Might I quote Monika (longimanus) above...."a universal message, not limited to any time nor to any people." For me, that is the key to its greatness...
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revenant
Again, I'm sorry I started that idea. I believe it is dangerous to judge a period by a picture, however iconic. Meaningful images are by their very nature extremes and should never be used to judge a situation shared by many, many people (and I don't care about their skin colour; I care about their plight). The horrible image shown above is an extreme example. The fact that it exists is enough, but it should never, ever be used to describe three generations of a people as idealistic, as courageous, as hard-working as the Americans who put an end to horror that afflicted my part of the world 65+ years ago and then paid to rebuild a continent . I'm absolutely certain that Mark's intention is the same as mine.

Even so, the image Mark has shown is a document. This repulsive thing did exist and, unfortunately, continues to exist all over the world.

Again, I am awestruck by the power of images shared in this project. Perhaps the one above needed to be seen, if only to remind us that images have power, for good and for evil. But I won't hide the fact that such images as the one above make me sick and ashamed.

But I haven't addressed the "touchiness" issue Mark refers to. I think it's a good thing. It means people are more aware and the fact that, as Jeff says, it couldn't be used today is proof that people are aware of the undertones. If we can read into visual messages like that we can all work to prevent something as horrible as the image above ever happening again.
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Jarvo
That's a great picture from the point of the juxtaposition between the wealth in the poster and the poverty in reality. The other day I listened to a radio programme where a philosopher (I wish I'd paid more attention so that I could name him) argued that the World would be a much better place for everyone if instead of relentlessly pursuing happiness we sought to minimise suffering. I think there's a lot to be said for that.
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jeffcornish
As we all know, there is no correct interpretation of these pictures. Our views are painted by many different life brushes.

I really appreciate Stefan for putting this project together. And I am awestruck by the quality of the posts on this forum. I learn from every one of you.
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marilynx
@ Jarvo...is not the search for happiness the cause for unhappiness in that we run from contentment?
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revenant
This isn’t germane to the thread, but I want to share it here. I own a photo album from my grandmother (b. 1905). My father’s family were working class Scots (my grandmother was the youngest of eleven; my grandfather the eldest of sixteen siblings – my father remembers 20+ aunts and uncles). This album of nameless kin sharing a discernable family resemblance brings many things to mind. Most of the images record an event: a young soldier proud in his uniform (I know that one died in the Great War); a wedding: a baptism or some other moment of importance to its participants now lost in time. I am struck by how important we consider images of ourselves.

The last century was one of images; it is now how we record our lives and, possibly more importantly, how we perceive other people’s. This century continues and amplifies the experience – just look at teenagers snapping away with their mobile phones. I mention this here because these are the “true” perception of a time, not the extreme images of war or misery or hatred or ecstasy. And the wonderful thing is that we all have family albums like mine stashed away, yellowing with age. Great, iconic images such as Jeff’s ultimately fail because they are unique; they can never truly represent the extraordinary, baffling, endearing kaleidoscope of everyday life.

This is in no sense a request, but I do hope someone one day shares as his or her favourite image a picture of family life. With two notable – and very appreciated – exceptions, the “my favourite image” shares have been about people. As photography is basically a human act of sharing, I suppose this makes perfect sense.
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Jarvo
I think you're right Marilyn. I think we often put too much effort spent chasing our tails, trying to do more and get more. Not enough time spent helping others, enjoying their company, appreciating the view or just relaxing. I'm sure this is why there is so much stress at times like Christmas, because people put so much effort into "making it perfect" that they don't actually have the time or energy to enjoy it properly.
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xabolcs
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