Light and Shadows in the Thirties

The 1930s were a time of political and economic upheaval, when nations questioned previous orthodoxies and experimented with new systems. Technological innovations led to decreased printing costs, and photographs permeated mass culture, from magazines to newspapers and books. Artists and authors from all political and national affiliations created books that presented photographs as sources of truth and authority. The photographic books in this exhibit capture the diversity of opinions and strategies during this pivotal decade, as each work aims to influence its audience through the power of the photograph.

In the United States, the twin catastrophes of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression were the catalyst for sobering tomes that claimed objectivity, while other photographers captured the promise of technology and the hope of the irrepressible American spirit. National Socialists in Germany produced books that created a personable view of their leader Adolf Hitler and, in publications from the Soviet Union, photographs represented the industrial successes of the workers’ state. Travelogues glorified distant regions, despite the twin threats of industrialization and imperialism in the heady final years of the 1930s. All these books testify that photography was not bound to one ideology—the camera captured both light and shadows.

The exhibit was curated by Bay Lauris ByrneSim. The exhibit was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries from February 16 to March 30, 2016.

Light and Shadows poster

You may download a small, 8x10 version of the poster: Light-and-Shadows.jpg. You may also download a handlist of the items in this exhibition: LightandShadows.

Materials Included in the Exhibition

Case 1. Truth and Tension in the United States

The ecological collapse of the Dust Bowl exacerbated the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. In 1935, Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) employed photographers to capture the hopelessness of the nation. Despite a pretense of objectivity, photographers often staged photographs or used artistic cropping to create sympathy. These photographs were appropriated and published in newspapers and books as true documents of the suffering of the American people—and they were, in some sense, true.

However, others believed that American innovation and perseverance would conquer the Depression, and presented that perspective in a number of positive photobooks. The people would not be disheartened: the bright lights of New York City still shone and Boy Scouts still hiked and camped. Technology held the key to a more prosperous future at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The contrast between hope and despair presents the promise of photography to capture reality—but only a slice of it, and only for one moment.

  1. This is New York: The First Modern Photographic Book of New York. Edited by Gilbert Seldes. New York: David Kemp, 1934. Library Depository G851T N489se [not available at Rauner]
    1. In the introduction, Gilbert Seldes orders the reader to “Go directly to the pictures, which, like good wine, need no beating around the bush.” Despite this admonition, captions guide the reader through the city’s buildings, nightlife, and crowds, and cast New York as a prosperous and bustling city.
  2. America's Answer. New York: Boy Scouts of America, 1939. Rare Book HS3313 .B69 1939  
    1. This booklet encouraged men to become Boy Scout troop leaders to save American boys from falling under the spell of fascism or communism.
  3. A Century of Progress International Exposition, Chicago, 1933-1934. Chicago: Century of Progress International Exposition, 1933. Rare Book T501.C1 C46 1934
    1. The International Exposition in Chicago brought together technology and nationalism, memorialized in this lavish presentation book. The Hall of Science explored contemporary discoveries.
  4. Archibald MacLeish. Land of the Free. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1938. Rare Book E169 .M16  First edition c.3
    1. Archibald MacLeish planned to use pictures from the Farm Security Administration to illustrate a text, but the images’ “stubborn inward livingness” caused MacLeish to reconsider. This is “a book of photographs illustrated by a poem.”  On this page, MacLeish writes about police brutality, inspired by Ben Shahn’s photograph of a deputy in a mining town.
  5. Walker Evans and Lincoln Kirstein. American Photographs. [New York:] The Museum of Modern Art [1938]. Presses S759ev
    1. Released to accompany a Walker Evans’ retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, this photobook presents images without captions. Lincoln Kirstein claims in the introduction that Walker Evans turns an objective lens onto the sufferings of the Great Depression, including this image from New York in 1932.
  6. Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. You Have Seen Their Faces. New York: Modern Age Books, Inc., 1937. Caldwell 561
    1. Novelist Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White worked together to create this stunning display of suffering in the American South. A brief disclaimer states that the captions and images were not related, but the layout belies this, creating a propagandistic effect that tugs at the heart.

Case 2. Nazi and Soviet Propaganda

The economic and social catastrophes of the early 1930s led nations to question the old orthodoxies of laissez-faire capitalism and liberal democracy. Two nations in particular were examples of alternative structures during this time—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Nazi Germany. The USSR was a communist state where industrialism flourished after the revolutionary woes of the 1920s, despite the global suffering of the Great Depression. Adolf Hitler, the newly appointed German chancellor, was wildly popular for his success in combatting unemployment and his powerful nationalist rhetoric.

These nations presented new economic and political visions, but those visions differed greatly. The Soviet Union presented itself as a communist utopia—the success of heavy industry was the ultimate goal. Nazi Germany reserved its adulation for Adolf Hitler himself; even books produced in other countries obsessively focused on Hitler. Both regimes produced photograph-based propaganda to promote their economic and political systems, obscuring the dark realities of famines, massacres, and concentration camps.

  1. Cigaretten-Bilderdienst, G.m.b.H. Adolf Hitler: Bilder aus dem Leben des Führers. Altona-Bahrenfeld: Cigaretten-Bilderdienst, 1936. Rare Book DD247.H5 C5 or Library Depository B H638c
    1. This book, captured by an American soldier in 1945, is titled Adolf Hitler: Pictures from the Life of the Führer. The photographs were pasted in, much like a scrapbook, and create a fictitious sense of closeness to Hitler, who appears in almost every image.
  2. Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf. Translated by James V. Murphy. London: Hutchinson in association with Hurst & Blackett, 1939. Rare Book DD247.H5 A326 1939  
    1. Though Hitler came to power in 1933, there was no unabridged English translation of his autobiography and master plan Mein Kampf (My Struggle) until 1939. This edition was issued in eighteen weekly parts and uses stock photographs as filler. But Hitler’s face appears on every single cover, using Hitler himself as a metonym for his regime.
  3. Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt: 100 Bilddokumente aus dem Leben des Führers. München: Zeitgeschichte-verlag, 1930. Baker Berry Old Dartmouth B H638hw [not available at Rauner]
    1. Hitler As No One Knows Him: 100 Photographic Documents from the Führer’s Life claims to introduce Germans to Hitler’s private side. Between photographs of Hitler during World War I and Hitler speaking with Nazi officials, Hitler holds hands with children and goes to picnics. But Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffmann captured most of the images, so even the candid shots were carefully composed. These pages emphasize Hitler’s love of dogs, claiming that “evil men” poisoned his favorite hound to hurt this “good man.”
  4. Marat L. Tursunkhodzhaev, A. Antonov, L. Kesselʹ, Aleksandr M. Rodchenko, and Varvara F. Stepanova. 10 Let Uzbekistana Ssr. Moskva: Gos. izd-vo izobrazitelʹnykh iskusstv, 1934. Rare Book DK941.5 .D47 1934
    1. This album commemorates ten years of Soviet rule in Uzbekistan. Colorful photomontages and graphs celebrate the success of agriculture, and more importantly, heavy industry. Here, industrial workers fix machines in a factory established in 1931 in Uzbekistan’s capital city.
  5. I. Sautin, I. P. Ivanitskiĭ, Alexander S. Grigorovich, El Lissitzky, and Mikhail V. Nikolaev. USSR: An Album Illustrating the State Organization and National Economy of the USSR. Moscow: Scientific Publishing Institute of Pictorial Statistics, 1939. Stefansson HA1435 .U2 1939
    1. Alternating pages of graphs with photographs, this book describes the cultural and economic successes of the Soviet economic plans. These pages laud the equality granted to women in the USSR, especially in heavy industry and aeronautics.
  6. Aleksandr Arosev. Le cinéma en URSS. Moscou: Voks, 1936. Rare Book PN1993.5.R9 S614 1936 
    1. With text in French, Cinema in the USSR invites an international audience to consider Soviet artistic and technological innovations in filmmaking. But most of the photographs feature the incredible team—from cameramen to actors—necessary to create a film.


Case 3. Of Travelogues and Technology

With airplanes, steamships, and cameras, the world was growing smaller in the 1930s. Photography brought foreign landscapes and peoples into the hands of Londoners and New Yorkers, who could travel to the Arctic and Eastern Europe without leaving their favorite armchairs. Travelogues from this decade emphasize prosperity and encourage tourism despite growing tensions around the world.

From the Spanish Civil War to the invasion of Poland, photography also captured the violence and glory of industrialized warfare. The coexistence and mingling of these genres speaks to the greater ambivalence about the role of technology—including photography—in capturing, preserving and representing the modern world.   

  1. Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. North of the Danube. New York: The Viking Press, 1939. Caldwell 337 or Library Depository G58 C127n
    1. “If the fate of Czechoslovakia has outraged your moral sense, read this work!” one agitated reviewer wrote in 1939, referring to the policy of appeasement that handed Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler. However Caldwell and Bourke-White’s book is a poetic celebration of the earthiness of Eastern European peasant life. Only a few images present the violence of the Nazi occupation or the simmering ethnic tensions, leaving one with an overall impression of peace and agricultural prosperity.
  2. Ruth Matilda Anderson. Gallegan Provinces of Spain: Pontevedra and La Coruña. New York: Printed by order of the Trustees of the Hispanic Society of America, 1939. Bryant DP302.P6 A5
    1. The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with the victory of Francisco Franco’s fascist nationalists. Though one of the cities shown in the book, La Coruña, was a nationalist stronghold, this book does not mention the war. Soldiers “play the peacock” in colorful costumes and enjoy festival days.
  3. Bertram Thomas. Arabia Felix: Across the "Empty Quarter" of Arabia. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1932. Lawrence DS207 .T5 or Lawrence 104
    1. The frontispiece claims that the photographs are as unusual as the text itself, allowing readers to gaze upon “a land never before seen by a white man.”
  4. Grover Loening. Our Wings Grow Faster. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc, 1935. Stefansson TL521 .L6 
    1. This history of aviation presents aeronautics as a positive technology that promotes individualism and adventure.
  5. Leon Wacław Koc and Eugenius Quirini. L'armée et la marine de guerre polonaises: L'esercito e la marina da guerra di Polonia. Varsovie: Librairie Militaire Principale, 1939. Rare Book UA829.P7 K63 1939
    1. This Polish bicycle brigade beams with pride at the army’s technological advantages. The authors could not have known that a few months later, the German army would brutally crush the Polish army in an unexpected invasion. 
  6. Visions de guerra i de reraguarda, Serie A. Barcelona: Editorial Forja, 1937. Rare Book DP269.15 .V57  v.1-8 Ap.1937-Oct.1937
    1. Published in Barcelona, an anti-fascist stronghold, these small booklets present photographs that capture the violence of the Spanish Civil War, including this battle in Barcelona in 1936.
  7. J. M. Scott. The Polar Regions: An Anthology of Arctic and Antarctic Photographs. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935. Stefansson G590 .S34 1935
    1. This book encapsulates the tension between technology and exploration of “untouched” nature in the 1930s, situating the native peoples of the Arctic as curious onlookers to the technological advances of this water plane.