The American Way
Gelatin silver print
Purchased through the Harry Shafer Fisher 1966 Memorial Fund; PH.972.65
Margaret Bourke-White was a photojournalist for both Fortune and Life magazines during the 1930s and 1940s; in fact, one of her photographs graced the cover of the inaugural issue of Life in 1936. Taking the photodocumentary approach of such Farm Security Administration photographers as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Bourke-White typically added a stylized, journalistic element to her images, which came to characterize the visual approach of the mass-circulation picture magazines that proliferated in the 1940s and 1950s. This comparatively “straight” photograph varies from much of Bourke-White’s more dramatic magazine work, which often aggrandized industrial subjects through the use of unusual vantage points, and it appealed to a depression-era public eager for the concreteness of photo reportage. In January 1937 the Ohio River flooded, killing or injuring nine hundred people in one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Bourke-White was sent by the editors of Life to document the damage in the devastated city of Louisville, Kentucky, and the resulting photographs ran as the magazine’s lead story. Here, a seemingly never-ending line of working- and middle-class black men and women line up at a flood relief center before a billboard of a smiling white family. The straight-on composition and sharp cropping of the photograph isolate the figures from any distracting details and enable an easy juxtaposition between the saccharine subject of the billboard and the horizontal line of people below. Bourke-White’s negatives confirm that she shot this scene several times, rearranging her subjects until she felt that she had most effectively framed the visual tension and glaring irony of the situation. While the photograph is not a representation of unemployment or welfare, it is one of Bourke-White’s most iconic images and is frequently employed to illustrate poverty and inequality.
Last Updated: 4/29/09