by Brian Speer


America in the 1930s was rife with change. Roosevelt’s New Deal created sweeping reform intended to pull the country out of the Depression. Corporate America was on the rise, as were labor unions. Socialism grew in response to Fascist regimes in Europe. And against this charged backdrop, documentary photography emerged as an important visual form.

Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, and Berenice Abbott are among the most notable photographers of the 20th century. All of them turned their interests to documentary photography during the 1930s and were central to the development of the genre. American Modern, a companion to an exhibition set to open at the Colby College Museum of Art in July, presents three very different approaches to chronicling this formative era.

Terri Weissman’s essay, “Berenice Abbott, Elizabeth McCausland, and the ‘Great Democratic Book,’” looks at the relationship between photographer and author; Jessica May explores the struggle of documentary photography as artistic vision in “The Work of an Artist: Walker Evans’s American Photographs.” But it is Sharon Corwin’s essay, “Constructed Documentary: Margaret Bourke-White from the Steel Mill to the South,” that best traces a photographer’s changing approach to documentary work during this period by following Bourke-White as she becomes a successful commercial photographer during the late 1920s.

Corwin, the Carolyn Muzzy Director and chief curator of the Colby museum, begins by examining Bourke-White’s work at the Otis Steel Mill in Cleveland. The Otis Steel images helped to form the focus of Bourke-White’s early work, the “beauty of industrial shapes.” Central tenets of these images were dramatic lighting, repetition of form, and the portrayal of the grand scale of industry.

Workers in these photos were posed, seemingly serving as props to the machinery and providing a sense of scale. Corwin argues that “Bourke-White’s representation of laboring human bodies as peripheral, sometimes-uncertain figures served as a powerful metaphor for the socioeconomic status of the worker threatened by both the rationalized factory’s mechanization of work and the Depression-era realities of mass unemployment.”

The mid-1930s marked a period of change for Bourke-White. Her coverage of the Dust Bowl in 1934 for Fortune sparked an interest in focusing her compositions on workers. Her political convictions also evolved during this time, with Bourke-White “supporting Communist front organizations.” Like Abbott, she joined the American Artists’ Congress, which promoted an anti-Fascist agenda, writes Corwin.

In 1936 Bourke-White traveled with novelist Erskine Caldwell to photograph the effects of the Depression on southern sharecroppers. This partnership would lead to a book on the rural south, You Have Seen Their Faces, published in 1937. Bourke-White’s documentary style was derived from the same elements as her commercial photography (exaggerated scale, dramatic lighting, visual repetition), including her penchant for staging. While Bourke-White’s work has been criticized as manipulative and exploitive with a populist agenda, in its time the images resonated with viewers, and the book was a commercial success.

Each essay in American Modern is followed by 25 quality reproductions with additional images sprinkled throughout the essays to help illustrate the authors’ views. The book illustrates how commercial and governmental commissions affected the documentary style, which became a major part of American culture and modern art, and how documentary style led to photojournalism.