Witnessing Social Change in the '30S: Corcoran Shows How U.S., Soviet Photographers Captured Their Times

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 24, 1999 | Go to article overview

Witnessing Social Change in the '30S: Corcoran Shows How U.S., Soviet Photographers Captured Their Times


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The 1930s saw tragic upheaval in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's United States, with the Great Depression's bread lines and homelessness. The American Dream had vanished as well as the exuberant prosperity of the Roaring '20s.

Halfway around the globe, in Josef Stalin's Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the mood was euphoric - on the surface, at least. Stalin had amassed millions of citizens for factory and farming projects. The Soviets were led to believe the good life was imminent.

Both leaders used drastic programs to turn around their respective worlds - Roosevelt with the "New Deal," which sent people back to work, and Stalin with his industrialization and farm collectivization plans. Both believed the camera would be a tool for success, that photographs were a way of garnering support.

That both were right is confirmed in the exhibit "Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and U.S." at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The show runs there through Oct. 3, then is to tour for three years to other museums in the United States, Europe and Russia.

The 200 photographs in the exhibit are as much about dreams as about persuasion. Both governments employed young, idealistic photographers to push their programs. Soviets and Americans alike felt they could make the world a better place through their art. The intensity and passion of their beliefs is what makes this such a powerful show.

The two countries had their icons, images that were pressed indelibly in the memory through their subject matter and the greatness of the photography.

One was Dorothea Lange's "Destitute Picker in California: A 32-Year-Old Mother of Seven Children (Migrant Mother), Nipomo, California" (1936), which shows a young widow with several of her children. The family's crops had failed, and they scavenged vegetables and trapped birds to eat. The mother had just sold for food the tires of the car in which they lived.

By photographing such subjects, Lange hoped to rally the public's support for creating migrant camps in California. She, with the other American photographers included in the show, worked for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration. They were hired to document the Depression's ravages across America's farmland.

Lange showed things as they were, but Soviet photographers such as Alexander Rodchenko depicted life as they thought it could be. His "Pioneer Girl," shot just six years before Lange's "Migrant Mother," portrays a hopeful girl looking longingly at something just out of view of the camera. A happy, well-fed future, perhaps?

In 1932, Ivan Shagin pictured buxom young women marching energetically in "Sports Parade, Red Square, Moscow." They exude health and energy individually and the well-being and strength of the Soviet Union collectively.

* * *

While this exhibit focuses on Soviet and American photographers as a group, their individuality intrigues the most. Many have fascinating histories. The Corcoran would have enriched the exhibit, making it more exciting and dramatic, by describing the photographers. Photos of them and explanatory wall labels telling how and when the images were made would have been welcome additions.

Consider Soviet photographers Viktor Bulla and Dmitri Debabov. …

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