It would be difficult to identify a field with a more tenuous place in the academic community than photography. Barely 150 years old and already in imminent danger of becoming another casualty on the technological superhighway, photography has always had a hard time winning the respect that is typically awarded to its artistic antecedents. Of course, these days, that's not saying much anyway.

Photography is rooted in popular culture, and its apparent simplicity makes it seem acutely obvious and utterly ordinary; we all know what photographs are, don't we? If we think about photography at all, we are inclined to regard it somewhat like gravity: it's just there and it's pretty predictable. Who needs a degree in physics to know that, when a plate falls off a table, it heads for the floor? But I digress.

I believe that stories are told in order to help us understand. They give shape and meaning to our experience. The Great Depression was a compelling subject for story making in part because of the great need to understand it. If its causes seemed obscure and improbable, perhaps its effects might be scrutinized for meaning. Since politicians and economists were unable to alleviate or even explain it, it was not unreasonable to look to novelists and photographers for insights. And perhaps photographers were the most logical choice after all. Photographs can be counted on, or so the standard fiction has it, for reliable evidence, for the facts of what goes on in the world, and for an accurate reflection of who we are. Maybe they could tell a story that would help us understand.

So it is not surprising that this period of hardship and self-examination was also a time in which an unparalleled body of photographs was made. A story needed to be told, and a remarkable group of visual storytellers appeared to fill that need; it is their stories that I will touch upon this evening.



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