Picturing Faith

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Colleen McDannell. Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Pp. 1-305. ISBN 0-300-10430-8.


Colleen McDannell recounts the story of the federal government’s collection of approximately 164,000 black and white negatives from 1935 to 1943 from a different perspective. She looks at how the photographers, employed by first the Resettlement Administration, and then the Farm Security Administration and finally the Office of War Information, pictured religious life in America. What she finds is many different stories that tend to tell more about the photographers than those who are being photographed. In the book she recounts the backgrounds of Roy E. Stryker, head of the photography project in all three agencies, and the numerous photographers he employed including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans among others. According to McDannell, their backgrounds were similar in that each photographer had been exposed to religion as a child but rejected regular religious observance as adults. Whether they were former Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, they each confronted religious faith while trying to frame life in America during the depression and the beginning of World War II.

It is the tension between the photographers who represent an increasingly secular America and their encounter with religious symbols that dotted the American landscape that McDannell finds irresistible. The photography project was part of the New Deal desire to reform America. According to McDannell, “The Photographers were asked to portray the nightmare of poverty but not to represent it as so horrible that people would turn their faces away from the images. The pictures had to show the inhumanity of economic hardship without destroying the humanity of the poor or directly attacking capitalism” (P. 20). Picturing religion was a way to achieve that goal, but McDannell believes the pictures reflect the attitudes of the photographers towards religion more than Americans’ use of faith in their lives. For instance, she believes that Dorothea Lange ignored the enthusiastic worship of California migrants to merely tell the story of people who brought their culture with them to the west coast. The book also has a chapter entitled “Churches without People” that discusses Walker Evans preference to photograph religious structures without their congregants. Religion is pictured as part of the culture of an area without involving the spirituality of the practice of faith.

As World War II approached, the photographic project took a different turn. The photographers were no longer asked to support the reforms of the New Deal. Instead, they were asked to picture living in a free and democratic America. In January, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt declared in his State of the Union address that there were four essential freedoms. “The first was freedom of speech, the second freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, the third freedom from want, and the fourth freedom from fear” (P. 143). Thus, religious practice became a basic element of a democratic America, and the photographers were sent out to capture Americans practicing their faith. From this point on, pictures reflected active religious practice showing Protestants, Catholics and Jews as worshipping, patriotic Americans.

McDannell’s research involved combing the files of pictures stored in the Library of Congress to find the underlying story of how faith was pictured by government photographers. The results of her work are fascinating as she tells a broader story of the interaction between faith-based and secular Americans. The pictures reflect only Jewish and Christian practice of religion. McDannell believes that picturing Indian religious practices would have been too controversial, and Muslims and other eastern religions were not widespread in America at the time. Although lacking this broader perspective, what is pictured tells us much about how government wanted to portray American religious practice at a time of economic depression and then war.


Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

McDannell’s book provides a challenge to the reader to consider how we perceive the past. Because the depression adversely affected the vast majority of Americans, its stories have been told through the lens of family lore for years. A part of the oral history of the depression has been captured by Studs Terkel in his book Hard Times (New York: The New Press, 1970). Oral history does not necessarily tell us the perspective of the storyteller. Similarly, photographs of the era do not always leave us with the photographer’s understanding of the picture. The strength of McDannell’s work is that she gives us background about the photographers working for Roy Stryker. Through this background, we get some insight into the gap between faith-based persons and secular people in how they understand the adversity of the depression.

As Terkel’s oral histories and the photographs of the government archives show, each individual experienced the economic hardship differently. A theme that McDannell uses is that people struggled with understanding the experiences of their fellow countrymen. McDannell references two books which have a similar theme. James Agee’s narrative and Walker Evans’ pictures of tenant farmers in Alabama in their book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), show the struggles of the two men with understanding the lives of three tenant farmer families. The families’ acceptance of their circumstances went beyond the experience of Agee and Evans who tried to use all their senses to explain the poverty around them. When the book was initially published in 1941, it did not sell to an American audience that was increasingly focused on the war in Europe and away from the past ten years of economic hardship. In his novel, Native Son (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1940), Richard Wright baffled white America with his tale of a gruesome Chicago murder of a wealthy young white woman by a poor black male. Wright’s perspective of the bleakness of poverty and rejection of religion by the young killer was not well received in white America on the eve of World War II. Religious activity was a basic freedom, and poverty was not an excuse in a country getting ready for war.

McDannell has struck upon a theme that resonates well with Americans. According to Roy Rosenweig and David Thelen in their study of how Americans connect to the past, The Presence of the Past (Columbia University Press, 1998), participants in the author’s survey found that familial settings and intimate uses of other pasts mattered most (P. 20). The perception of the importance of religion is a past that creates those intimate images. The question that McDannell attempts to answer is how those past images are created. Alison Landsberg calls these experiences “prosthetic memories—those not strictly derived from a person’s lived experience” (Landsberg. Prosthetic Memories. Columbia University Press, 2004), (P. 25). McDannell’s work offers an excellent study of how photographs can affect our memory of something as personal as religion. These depression photographs create an image that seems to be ours but reflects the perspective of others.

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