Photography Since Yesterday

During the early years of the Depression one began to notice, here and there, young men with what appeared to be leather-cased opera glasses slung about their necks. They were the pioneers of the camera craze who had discovered that the Leicas and other tiny German cameras, which took postage-stamp-size pictures capable of enlargement, combined a speed, a depth of focus, and an ability to do their work in dim light which opened all sorts of new opportunities to the photographer. The number of “candid camera” addicts grew rapidly as the experts showed how easily an executive committee or a table-full of night-club patrons might be shot sitting. During the eight years from 1928 to 1936 the importation into America of cameras and parts thereof–chiefly from Germany–increased over five-fold despite the Depression.

By 1935 and 1936 the American camera manufacturers and the photographic supply shops found their business booming. Candid cameras were everywhere, until before long prominent citizens became accustomed to having young men and women suddenly rise up before them at public events, lift little cameras to one eye, and snap them–of course without permission. At intermissions during theatrical openings and gala concerts the aisles would sometimes be full of camera sharpshooters. Schoolboys were pleading with their parents for enlargers and exposure-meters. Camera exhibitions were attracting unprecedented crowds.
During the two years 1935-37 the production of cameras in the United States jumped 157 per cent–from less than five million dollars’ worth in 1935 to nearly twelve and a half million dollars’ worth in 1937. An annual collection of distinguished photographic work, U. S. Camera, became a bestseller. A flock of new picture magazines appeared and a few of these jumped to wide popularity, led by the more dignified Life and the less dignified Look. One had only to lay U. S. Camera beside the camera magazines of a few years before, with their fancy studies of young women in Greek draperies holding urns, their deliberately blurred views of sailboats with rippled reflections, and their sentimental depictions of cute babies, to realize how this art had grown in range, imagination, and brilliance.

Some of the new photographers centered their interest upon snapping friends and relatives (including, of course, their children) and immortalizing their travels; some of them tried to capture the sentimental loveliness of scenes that they had enjoyed; and some went on to experiment in the making of abstract patterns of light and shade. But a great many others found themselves becoming unsentimental reporters–of events, of the social scene, even of the uglier parts of the social scene. Able professionals like Margaret Bourke-White, like Dorothea Lange of the Farm Security Administration, like Walker Evans, often worked with the same sort of sociological enthusiasm that had caught the young novelists and was here and there catching the young painters. When S. T. Williamson, reviewing for the New York Times a book of Walker Evans’s uncompromising pictures (brought out by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938), denied that Mr. Evans had revealed the physiognomy of America and insisted that it would be “nearer the mark to say that bumps, warts, boils, and blackheads are here,” he was saying the sort of thing that might be said about half the novels written by the devotees of social significance. What was significant about this aspect of the camera craze was that photographers like Mr. Evans with their grim portrayals of dismal streets, tattered billboards, and gaunt, sad-eyed farm women, were teaching the amateur–whose name was legion–that the camera need not necessarily be shut up in its case until a beauty spot was reached, that there was excitement in catching characteristic glimpses even of the superficially ugly manifestations of life, that these too could be made beautiful in their way, and that when one began to see the everyday things about one with the eye of an artist who was simultaneously a reporter or a sociologist, one began to understand them.

From Since Yesterday: The 1930s In America, 1929-1939, by Frederick Lewis Allen (published in 1939).

Image by Water Evans, uncorrected scan at the Library of Congress.

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