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Look at This! Pictures of the Great Depression by Berenice Abbott and Dorothea Lange

This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
Look at This! An Unusual Underwater Portrait
Look at This! An Aerial Photographer's View of The World

In this photograph we see some cobbled together huts and two men sitting outside. What can we glean from this? Are they just homeless or is there more to this than meets the eye?

What Can We See in This Photograph?

huts and unemployed
'Huts and the Unemployed' by Berenice Abbott via The New York Public Library 

Makeshift huts and people are the focus of this photograph. The houses are put together incredibly well considering they’re clearly from found materials–so is the focus of this image architectural? Or is it a social commentary on the time? I’d say both.

Our photographer, who we’ll learn a little more about shortly, had an interest in photographing buildings: 

‘In 1932, her aesthetic shifted and, using a large-format camera, she began photographing the architecture of the city in greater detail, often from dramatic points of view. She famously shot the Flatiron Building from below and Manhattan at night from above – perched on top of the Empire State Building’–Source: The Guardian

The photograph in our analysis was taken in 1935. The US began to recover from the Great Depression in 1933 but recovery was slow, and we know from the title that the people in our photograph are unemployed. Have they been hit hard by the Depression? It seems that these are people at a financial low but still showing how capable and resourceful they are; they’ve built huts, but more than that, they’ve decorated them with pictures–there is pride here and a feeling that these people will not be beaten and will not give up.

A pram in the image highlights the severity of the situation; clearly there are babies or children here which raises questions: What kind of life are they living? Are they fed adequately? Yet, there is a broom pictured – someone is taking care of this makeshift home or street, there is a pile of dirt as if neatly swept up; they are not living in squalor. There is a subtle, yet powerful, drama at play here.

How Does This Image Make Us Feel?

Architecturally, this image is interesting; the idea of someone adding to a building in such a contrasting way from the original style can’t help but pique interest. The wood is distinct from the brick, particularly as many different pieces of wood have been used. This further contrasts from the uniform ‘brick pattern’ behind the huts, pulling them out of the image towards us. There is contrast between the texture of elements: the softness of the dirt, the organic-looking huts, the hard repetition of the brick. Our eyes look for contrasts like this, and in this composition the contrasting textures create a particularly strong sense of space.

The pictures on the outside of the wall are fascinating too; usually pictures are inside of houses, so in a way we feel almost like we’re being pulled in to someone’s home–or maybe even like we’re intruding somewhere personal, that we are uninvited. The cat, the man reading the newspaper, the pose of the other against the wall, the pram, and the broom all reinforce this feeling of a private moment.

So, on its face, this is might seem like an architectural image, but upon closer inspection it's actually something of a portrait. It's not a detached architectural or cool reportage image, either: this is a considered, sympathetic depiction of the circumstances of poor people.

About the Photographer and Photograph

Berenice Abbott originally pursued journalism, which might explain her flair for telling a story through photographs. After changing interests to sculpture and theatre, she studied in Paris and Berlin before becoming involved in photography as a darkroom assistant in 1923. After honing her darkroom skills, Man Ray, her employer, encouraged her to take her own photographs.

Abbott worked on her Changing New York project, which our example is part of, for 6 years before finally getting the financial backing which allowed her to focus on the task and eventually produce 305 photographs, some of which were made into a book published in 1939.

Your Turn! ‘Car and Homemade Trailer on U.S. 101’ by Dorothea Lange

car and trailer
'Car and Homemade Traileron U.S. 101' by Dorothea Lange via The New York Public Library 

This time, a photograph taken by another woman, Dorothea Lange, in 1936. Its full title is: ‘Car and Homemade Trailer on U.S. 101 near King City California. Man and wife middle-aged from Wisconsin. “Old Man Depression sent us out on the road… You don’t know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you ‘hit Florida”.

Not the most succinct of titles, but a wealth of information. Already we know the photograph is telling another story of the Great Depression. This time though, our subjects have picked up and left town. How does that compare with our previous photograph’s reading? What is similar about the composition? What is different?

If you're unsure of what to look for in a photograph, check out Dawn Oosterhoff's excellent article: How to Read a Photograph and let us know what you see in this image.

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