The Depression Was Real (See Color Photos); Whatever We’re Having Now is Worse (See CBSNews)

Yesterday, I saw this piece on the CBS Evening News website:

The crux: “About 6.2 million Americans, 45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country, have been jobless for more than six months – a higher percentage than during the Great Depression.” Read the rest here.

A few moments ago, I came across (again) a now-famous set of rare, full-color photos from The Depression, here.  I find these so striking.  Have you ever read the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin asks his dad why old pictures are in black and white and new ones are in color?  If you have, you probably haven’t forgotten his dad’s answer:  “no, son, you see, back then the whole WORLD was actually in black and white.”  Calvin’s dad was a jerk like that.  But if you were born after color film became commonplace, doesn’t it sort of feel a little bit like that?  Everything before the 60s was black and white.  The 70s are yellow, matte, grainy.  The 80s are glossy, possibly Polaroid. The 90s tread water until digital cameras became more affordable.

To people like me, the these Depression pictures look almost too real to be real.  But they are real, and so was the Depression.  It was suffered through and overcome by real working people with full-color lives of depth and contrast.

When I began my MFA program in the fall of 2009, I had just seen the Depression pictures for the first time via Photo District News.  On the night of my New School orientation, there was an impressive photo exhibit exploring the many facets of the  American Dream on the large wall at the front of the room.   From my seat in one of the middle rows, I could tell that one of the photos was from this same set.  This is my picture of the exhibit’s picture of the Whinery family, homesteaders in Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940 by Russell Lee:

I wrote at the time about feeling a haunted kind of reverence for these homesteaders, for places like Pie Town, circumstances seemingly ripped from the 19th century and put back to work like old parents, like some Giving Tree. And there are the connections these images conjure to the grandparents and greatgrandparents of people my age, that generation that raised us on Depression stories.  Isn’t there something in the things people do because they have to that makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into sacred space? Were people’s faces just more honest then, or do we always look like this when there’s no reason to pretend things aren’t exactly what they are?  I don’t know, but I see something holy there.  And, behind it, hope.

And here we are again, with bad and worsening economic news, horrendous unemployment numbers, the worst housing market for sellers since this crash started.  You’ve heard this thing we’re in called The Great Recession, and I’ll leave it others to say if we’re not just kidding ourselves.  Whatever it is, it’s real and in color.  Its subjects are on the brink.  Some day, our grandchildren will curate blog posts and HD videos about what they will be calling The Second Great Depression, and they’ll look for the same steely resolve you see linked above.  I don’t know if they’ll find it.  As a society, we’re so hooked on excess.

If there’s hope behind the picture of 2011 and forward, it’s in the sustainability movements still gaining steam.  It’s in sustainable design and infrastructure, in localism, and in alternative, appropriate transportation. It’s in dialing back our consumption, investing in kids and communities and eschewing status symbols and status quos.  We need the full-color resolve of those old days, and we need leaders who will call us to conservation, compassion, community.


See also:

Beat Your Strip Malls Into Greenspace” at The Daily Cocca

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