A front-seat view of America during the Great Depression, Picturing a Nation by Martin Sandler (Candlewick Press, 2021) presents over one hundred and thirty photographs that give life to our past in a way that appeals to anyone, age notwithstanding . Using photos taken by the Historical Records department of the Farm Security Association, this photographical memoir contains the greatest works of Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, and many more.
Divided by region, (Midwest, Northeast, South, and West) each of the four sections of Picturing a Nation focus on the people impacted by the Great Depression, not the economics or statistics. Subtitles and text enhance each page, with a caption and perhaps a relevant quote from the photographer besides the photographs. Additionally, a short history of the Farm Security Administration and the people behind it as well as a brief background on the Great Depression introduce the book. These first few pages bring meaning to each of these carefully curated photographs. The only shortcoming of this format is that page numbers have been excluded, making it difficult to revisit favorite photos.
Each of the photos displayed seems to have at least one out of three purposes; to reveal the humanity of each of the victims of the Great Depression, to show the devastation delt by the Great Depression or finally, to reveal the disparity of the nation’s wealth throughout this challenging time. Below, you can see a photo that serves this last purpose.
Taken by Marion Post Wolcott, this photo was shot at a poolside in Miami, Florida, and illustrates that a small, privileged population of the nation was not aware of the suffering of their neighbors. Picturing a Nation’s candid approach to life during our worst economic depression makes the reality of this event even harsher.
On the other side of the spectrum is this Dorothea Lange photograph, Migrant Mother, which was originally taken for the Historical Section of the FSA and is now widely regarded as the face of the great depression. Migrant Mother represents with unflinching clarity what life was like for the fifteen percent of the U.S. unable to find jobs.
Don’t open this book if you don’t want to learn about the past. Don’t open this book if you want a timeline or a list of people and places to memorize. Don’t open this book if you’re in a hurry. If you want to look into the eyes of migrants and orphans, aristocrats and struggling families, farmers and their fieldhands, and see their soul staring back… then turn the page.