Great Depression Era Photography
The photograph of Titus Oakley and his family shows the necessity of a family working together to make ends meet. During the Great Depression, this was commonplace; families depended on the labor of all members to survive. Men felt responsible for supporting their families, and in the wake of the depression, were troubled by their inability to be the sole providers. Whether they could provide or not, men were still considered by society to be the head of the household. This belief is evident in through the photo of the Oakley family because Titus is the only person whose name is recorded. Even in later photographs, which focus on his wife and daughter and do not include him, his wife and daughter are not given names. They are defined in relation to him.
Marion Post Wolcott, the photographer of this piece, was hired by the Farmer Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression to document the lives of the rural and small town poor. From 1935 to 1944, the photographers hired by the FSA took photos, which were used to draw support for impoverished farmers. The images taken in this campaign were often published in popular magazines and are credited with creating the perception of the Great Depression held today. Wolcott took this picture, and two others, of the Oakley family working with tobacco. One is of Mrs. Oakley, barefoot, hanging the tobacco.
Another photo of the Oakley family is of the Oakley’s eight-year old daughter stripping and tying the tobacco in their bedroom since it had become too cold for them to work outside.
These photos were taken in 1939, the year after Dr. Raymond Pearl published the first report stating that non-smokers lived longer than smokers. While this fact would be debated for many years, it marked a significant moment in the tobacco industry.
Through April 8, 2012, you can visit the Weatherspoon Art Museum to see the photo of the Oakley family (from the Weatherspoon’s collection) and try to figure out for yourself what their life was really like, in the To What Purpose? Photography as Art and Document exhibition in Gallery 6.
The Library of Congress also has over 160,000 of the FSA photos published online at the following website.
Post written by Stephanie Krysiak, a second year History Master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.