The Great Depression

26 Oct

The Blackside series, The Great Depression, debuted on PBS on October 25, 1993. After the success of Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton set out to tell the history of the turbulent 1930s. As with Eyes on the Prize, Hampton wanted to look beyond the well-worn, familiar stories to find the individuals who were not in history books, but nonetheless could tell the story of that time in a way that had not been heard before.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange – 1936

Two of the people interviewed for the series were Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh, the daughters of Florence Owens Thompson, who was the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic image, “Migrant Mother.”  In 1936, Dorothea Lange was working as a photographer for the Farm Securities Administration, documenting the devastating effects of the Great Depression. She photographed Thompson and her children at the end of a month-long trip of photographing migratory farm laborers.

Lange later said,

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. (Popular Photography, Feb. 1960)

The other images she took that day are from a further distance and show the tent and surrounding ground, but it is the medium close-up with Thompson in the center of the frame which became the iconic image.

When Blackside interviewed Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh in 1992, they gave a fuller picture of their mother and their transitory life at that time.

Norma who was the baby shown in her mother’s arms in the photograph, said,

I remember just moving all the time. We moved. Even as a little child I remember we’d load up…the tent or sometimes just a mattress or whatever we had, and we’d load that up and went to the next camp. But I can remember that being really young, and I remember thinking, “We’re not going to be here very long, so we’re going to go on down the road…My mom would talk to the farmers and make the arrangements for us to all go work, and then she’d get us together. We’d get up at like four in the morning. We’d all head out to the field. I always considered my mom very, very strong. Looking at her, in the pictures a lot of times she didn’t look like a beautiful woman, but she really was…We knew that when we got up in the morning that there was going to be work, or there was going to be food, and the reason it was going to be there was because my mom was going to see to it that we were going to be able to survive that day.

Katherine McIntosh, who was four years old at the time of the photograph and is one of the two girls shown leaning against her mother, described their  life and circumstances at that time,

I felt that I had to contribute, all of us did. That was our way of life. If we wanted anything, of course we all hoped out life would get better, which it did when we got older. Anyway we followed the fields…and the story first was told that Mother was selling the tires off our car to buy food, and my mother denied that. My older brother said that the radiator on our car had blew up, and when this picture was made they,him and I guess my two brothers had gone into town to try to get the radiator welded, and that’s what we were doing there. But we were like everyone else. We were looking for work.

In the interview, Norma also revealed that Thompson was an early union organizer,

One thing Mom taught us is that, one of the things that she was involved in is that she was an early union organizer. Katherine remembers that more than I do, but remembers having meetings when we were living even in the fields. Mom was real interested in that because that was our ticket out, to organize the unions.

– All quotes from: Interview with Katherine McIntosh and Norma Rydlewski, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 9, 1992, for The Great Depression. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The family eventually settled in Modesto, California. At the time, Lange did not record Thompson name and she was only identified as the subject of Lange’s photo in the 1970s by a reporter for the Modesto Bee, Emmett Corrigan. The digitization of Blackside’s transcript is part of a larger project to digitize all the original interviews for The Great Depression series. Digitization of the video interviews is almost complete and the Film & Media Archive is working to have the original transcripts online in the near future, in the model of the Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series online transcripts.

Episodes in the series covered Henry Ford and political activities by Ford workers, the New Deal, novelist and socialist Upton Sinclair’s 1934 campaign for governor on the “End Poverty in California” platform, union activity, and the build-up to World War II. Other interviewees include Gore Vidal, Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis, Charles Dempsey Floyd (Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s son), Adam Clayton Powell, III, and many others.

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