Finding America: A Look Towards the New Deal West
For my STEP project, I traveled to national parks out west in order to conduct research for my undergraduate thesis, a novel set in the Great Depression. Originally, I wanted to determine how New Deal programs effected the landscape of the American West through looking into a variety of regions and at the remains of different New Deal projects. However, over the course of the summer I expanded on this idea of the “Great Depression landscape” through additional research and found a variety of new creative projects which I pursued.
One of the main components of my trip consisted of conducting research regarding some of the national parks out west. I wanted to get a better feel for the landscape as people in the 1930s would have seen it. Therefore I traveled to a number of locations that saw major renovation or work during this time period. In travelling across the west through a variety of states I obtained a clearer sense of what people trying to escape the economic crisis might have felt. I took several photos at different park locations which I plan to use as settings within my novel. Through my travels I found different locations which I thought suited the feeling I wanted my novel to represent. One such area I found unexpectedly was a small town outside of Dubuque, Iowa. These photos were taken in the town:
I hope to capture this town’s essence within my novel through the use of setting and visualization. These are just a few of the photos I took to help supplement my ideas of setting. I also came across some other regions I wanted to represent through the course of my novel. One of these towns was Kanab, Utah. The following photos were taken from the location:
Kanab proved to be a very interesting town as it’s feeling was very unique. To me the area seemed like the meeting of older conservative ideals against newer ideas. This clash of tradition and modernization became readily apparent as I toured the town. I came across a variety of opinions concerning government and ideology. All of this took place against a desert background which I found especially drawing. I want to capture these unique feelings through the course of my writing. The other cities and towns through which I traveled provided an interesting comparison in regional differences. Before this trip, I didn’t comprehend the regional differences can make in the U.S. cultural setting. Now, I can fully understand how the United States is more split between a variety of ideologies. My novel will try and reflect these differences using a combination of regional beliefs and language differences. I havea more complete understanding of the United States as an array of cultures under one flag, instead of a nation united in one universal way of life. Perhaps the most important site I found was Scott Lake State Park, which contained several CCC sites and the remains of old camps. This site saw the development of variety of New Deal projects including the creation of a reservoir to contain the flow of a local river. The following photos were taken at the site:
I found the park to be a valuable resource in establishing a pattern among New Deal project landscapes. This landscape worked especially well in the realm of setting. Through my stop here, I now have a greater visual image of what to create as an authentic CCC camp atmosphere. Details like weather and the history behind the park also helped me to establish this idea. I hope to properly display this through a proper rendering through my writing.
RESEARCH: NOVEL “SUBJECT REFERENCE”
As with most novels, research must be conducted on the subjects of interest. This is especially important for a novel taking place during the Great Depression. I have titled the research of various sites and destinations as “subject Reference.” Through the course of my trip I found a variety of different subjects that would serve me well in the development of setting and realism for my novel. Many of these subjects were buildings from the 1930s or the remnants of old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) sites. I took photos of these sites to assist me in the development of setting and tone. Luckily, I found a restored CCC camp within Utah. The following pictures are from that camp.
This camp proved to be one of the most useful resource on the trip. This camp allowed me to see what a CCC camp could have actually looked like in its original state. As can be seen from the associated plaques, it can also be seen that the site provided great information of CCC camps in general. The camps unique construction along a hillside also allowed me to imagine some of the interesting aspects and stories within CCC sites. I feel I can now fully visualize a working camp within the setting of my novel. Mesa Verde National Park also had several park pieces stemming from the New Deal and the Progress Works Administration (PWA) of that time. The following photos are from the park:
The diorama pieces, displays, and scenery are just a few results of the New Deal programs upon this park. The impressive collection of materials and projects from the era allowed me to comprehend the scale of these New Deal programs. By looking at these pieces and touring some of the sites I was allowed the opportunity to research another possible setting for my novel. People viewing the old CCC projects also created an interesting sense of past meeting present, which I found to be an interesting subject. This subject continued to present itself throughout a number of photos from my trip.
CREATIVE PICTURE BOOK
Upon further research into areas of interest and the subjects of the west, I discovered more possible creative opportunities. I found out that a few New Deal agencies hired photographers to record New Deal programs in progress, and convince the nation of the positive affects they were having on the nation. Such photographs yielded a few famous results including “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange. These photographers were given “shooting scripts” to follow in order to capture certain subjects. Many of these shooting scripts were kept by the library of congress and are fully accessible to the general public. I took several of these shooting scripts on my trip and captured modern images of what I believed could represent them in the modern age. I plan to take these shooting scripts and modern photographs and combine them with a set of creative stories relating the recent recession to the Great Depression. This “picture book” is a work in progress and requires additional work. However, I have a selection of the beginning available which I will publish here. The following is an excerpt from the book:
Long Live Frank the Capitalist
“What do you think of Frank?” asked the young office worker. He sat back and took another sip of the frothy amber liquid. The noise started to pick up now that happy hour had begun.
“Frank, he’s an annoying son of a bitch, but what’re you gonnna do?” He poured himself another glass from the pitcher making sure to keep out as much foam as possible.
“You could do a lot actually.”
“Yeah, you could do a lot but you don’t want to get into any trouble,” Joe responded.
Anthony gave Joe a look of disgust and let his words out forcefully. “Who cares anymore? Work is hell all the damn time.”
Joe seemed taken aback. He remained silent and averted his eyes from Anthony’s. “I’m tired with all of it, just damn tired.”
After a short silence, Joe implored his friend. “Alright, what’s wrong? You pissed at the boss again or is it something else? Talk to me.” Anthony looked around in disgust at everyone around him. He started to roll up his work tie so it looked like a wheel of navy. Joe kept looking at Antony amidst the many sounds that started to fill his ear. The crackling of old pretzels and peanuts under the feet of various patrons did little to distract him.
“You see that clock up there?” Anthony said pointing to the far wall littered with various pictures of Chicago landmarks. The spire in the picture of a skyscraper pointed to a plain white clock above. The creamy boring face seemed out of place against the array of reds and browns on the wall.
“Yeah… but what does that have to do with anything?”
“Just humor me,” Anthony said, “What time is on that clock?”
“7:05 I think.”
“Right, now what if I told you that it was actually 6:55? What if I told you that you were completely wrong?”
Joe looked at the clock again and only felt more confused. “I don’t know. What does it –”
“Cause apparently Frank thinks it makes a world of fucking difference! Apparently ten minutes makes a company to go bankrupt!”
Joe tried to calm Anthony and gave him another full glass from the pitcher. “Simmer down, no need to get so angry over the boss.”
“Oh but there is a need! Someone needed to get up and tell him that our time is valuable, our time means something too. And ten minutes won’t cause a fire.”
Joe’s face became grave and his lively complexion started to fade. “What did you do?” Joe asked.
“I told him the truth. He needed to hear it.”
Anthony started to mumble softly. He looked down into the beer and watched his reflection. The ripples distorted the image and made him think about what he had become. He no longer saw the youthful image of creativity that inspired him every day. For the first time in his life, he seemed tired and restless. The bright images of his past were replaced with numbers and dollar signs of the accounting world. Short brown hair, green eyes, the narrow face: nothing brought back the old images despite the minimal changes in appearance since graduation.
“Why’d you say anything? Ten minutes doesn’t make a difference in the long run.”
“I couldn’t do it anymore, none of it. I walked over to the elevator with my things in hand and he was just standing there. He kept looking at that clock with a wide smirk; a smirk that could make a man vomit.”
Anthony paused again to finish off his second beer. Again, he waved his hand until the bartender noticed and brought him another full glass. He sadly glanced at the froth falling elegantly over the sides of the glass. He continued with his story.
“I tried to ignore him but to no avail. He started the same old employee-employer bullshit talk. ‘How’s this account coming?’ ‘Any exciting plans for the weekend?’ I was just about to leave when he asked, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ I told him it was the end of the work day and I was going home…. Then he told me to look at that fucking clock.”
“Yeah, everyone knows about that. It’s not like it’s the first time this has happened.”
“It’s the third time this month for me; the same thing every time. He tells me to look and smirks when I see the clock has shifted back ten minutes.”
Joe shook his head in disbelief. He didn’t see the point in his friend’s reaction over such a short amount of time lost. He thought it mattered little overall. “Listen, just get past it and appreciate what you’ve got. A lot of people would kill for your security.”
“I never wanted this job; I never wanted the security and never wanted to be here.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I’m not doing anything, nothing important at least. All I’m doing is crunching numbers and reading dollar signs. There’s got to be more out there than sitting in a cubicle for the rest of my life, slowly rotting away in a pile of reports and invoices. I wasn’t going to let this world enslave me.”
Joe looked at Anthony with a blank expression and chugged his beer. He noticed Anthony’s glass was already nearly empty.
“How much have you eaten today?” Joe asked.
“I skipped lunch.”
“Maybe you should slow down. I’m not going to be carrying you back to your apartment,” Joe said.
Anthony said, “Ah, don’t worry about me. For the first time in two years I feel free. I don’t care what Frank thinks anymore; I told him so myself.”
“Oh great, what did you say? Can’t you leave anything alone?”
Anthony started to break mini pretzels in his hand and line them up around his glass. The dry pretzels became soggy as they began to absorb the condensation. “Not this time. I’ve had enough of his BS for a lifetime. When he told me to go back to work, I just stood there and stared at him. For the first time, I saw more than an employer. I saw a bald man that was willing to cut time short for his own amusement.”
Joe rolled his eyes and ordered a blue moon. The noise continued to increase as drunks outnumbered their sober counterparts. Joe interjected, “You describe a typical boss, every employer and every superior anyone has ever met. It’s always the same in every single firm, company, and fast food restaurant. Someone needs to be on top, with someone on the bottom. We value the stability it offers; constant pay at a small price of little time and the sacrifice of minimal freedom. You know what they call that my friend? Capitalism, simple capitalism; you love it or leave it; appreciate it or complain about it. It depends on your outlook of the world…. so allow me to give you a suggestion: if you have a better idea, then I’m all ears. If not, enjoy the ride.”
For a mere moment, everything seemed quiet. There was no yelling or cheering for the static filled screens or the drunk that took his tenth shot. Anthony tried to think of the perfect utopian solution, but his mind remained devoid of any new sparks. Instead his mind continued to dwell on his own misery within the capitalist system. Anthony never wanted to go into the world of finance or work for one of the largest firms in Chicago. Finance became his marketable backup at the request of his parents. Rather he dreamt of pixels and paint; his mind constantly veered into capturing the world’s echoing spirit on strips of film.
He looked to Joe again with a similarly grave expression. His cold distant eyes suggested his content with the world of numbers while his prominent brow looked like that of a man satisfied with the world. Anthony sadly acknowledged the fact that his friend Joe was in reality an acquaintance with which he associated with to avoid lonely Friday evenings. Joe wasn’t a bad person, he simply differed in spirit from his creative counterpart, and Anthony always knew that.
“Come on now,” Joe said, “I think you need to forget about Frank and his bullshit.” He held up his glass and Anthony reciprocated likewise. “To getting through another week and drinking until we forget about it,” Joe finished. They both lifted their glasses and let the hoppy brew flow down their throats. After wiping their lips of the froth, a short silence fell between the men. Anthony felt himself changing from the inside out; his passions had finally gotten the better of him and unhappiness finally surfaced. He knew there were better things in store for him, and he felt his project was the answer. With a shaky grasp Anthony lifted his glass again and addressed Joe.
“To time and money, or as Frank told me today, ‘Time is money.’”
“Ha! That old bastard would say that.” Joe took a sip and lowered his glass. “Long live Frank the capitalist!” he jeered at Anthony.
Anthony snorted in amusement. “Yeah, more like fuck Frank the capitalist.” Each of them laughed aloud and drank some more. Joe let his mind run wild, while Anthony stared at the plain white face on the wall, a face that continued to haunt him.
COMPARING THE GREAT DEPRESSION TO THE GREAT RECESSION
Causation. The main causes of both crises lie in actions of the federal government. In the case of the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve, after keeping interest rates artificially low in the 1920s, raised interest rates in 1929 to halt the resulting boom. That helped choke off investment. Also, President Hoover signed into law the sky-high Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which stifled trade and damaged American exports throughout the 1930s. Finally, the President signed a large tax increase into law in 1932, which halted entrepreneurship.
The seeds of the Great Recession were planted when the government in the 1990s began pushing homeownership, even for uncreditworthy people, with a vengeance. Mortgage-backed securities built on dubious mortgage loans became “toxic” when the housing market took a downturn, and many American banks verged on collapse. The government’s urgent desire to bail out various banks and corporations created uncertainty and instability, and this may have widened the recession.
- Burton W. Folsom, Foundation for Economic Education
A Welcome Title
The orange needle hovered around the fifty on the circular face. To Anthony’s dismay, it only reminded him further about the clock in his office. However, the rural Wisconsin roads helped to alleviate any leftover angst from the weekend for he knew he was far away from any financial documents. A variety of new images clustered in his head; the hilly shades of green and the harmony of mooing helped him forget the dollar signs. Even the faint scent of manure from open fields was welcome compared to the familiar smells of coffee stains and cheap cologne. To Anthony, any time away from work for whatever reason could be called vacation, and he bathed in its sweet light.
“You know, my great-grandmother was a photographer for the Farm Securities Administration,” Anthony said. Zach shifted his eyes away from the window and readjusted the pillow holding his legs on the vehicle’s dashboard. He continued this slouched posture and took a loud sip from his Mountain Dew. “She had nothing when she left – her house had been repossessed and she lost her job like most of the others in the small Indiana town. When the Depression got worse, the fender manufacturer that employed everyone in town closed its doors in order to save what money was let in the business. Everyone later found out that the owner shot himself in his office a few days later.”
Zach rubbed the faint red stubble of his chin, probably a result of his Irish descent. “Interesting,” he said, “I’m surprised I never knew that. Is that what made you take the job in the first place?”
“Yeah, at first it was, but you know me. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Depression. To me the day the market crashed was the same day something in America died. Not only were the investors ruined, but an old sense of Americana died too.”
Anthony focused on the images outside of the windshield. The ethanol, tractors, bales of hay, a blue sky: nothing here changed on that fateful day in 1929. Few knew the magnitude of financial losses and the ripple effect that it would have on every aspect of the American experience. He tried to imagine a poor farmer losing his barn months after the crash or a small family travelling through. This imagination always led him back to the images his great grandmother brought back from the west, all of those sad dirty faces with nowhere to go.
“Yeah, you really could go on all day about the Depression changing this or that, changing the feeling of hope in America or anything really. The real question is how you are going to capture that feeling. I’m a market analyst, not an artist.”
“You don’t need to be an artist to help me. All I need from you is loyalty. I’m sure you’ve got that covered.” A moment of silence fell between the two; the humming of tractors in the distance became audible and the crows louder. Zach broke the silence first.
“So what exactly are you going to do? Got any ideas?” he asked.
“I’ve got a couple. I’ve been e-mailing the guy back and forth for a little while now. Most of the stuff he photographed is old buildings from the 1930s or old landscapes changed by the New Deal program. It sounds interesting.”
“And why are we going to visit the parks?” Zach asked.
“During the 1930s Roosevelt got the idea to employ people through the park system as one method to stagnate unemployment. So he created a new program to employ young men within the parks called the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC gave the men a place to live and food. They spread their camps out across America’s parks and were put to work building roads, maintaining trails, and creating new structures.”
“You want to capture what’s left of the program.”
“There isn’t much left behind from the camps, but there are a lot of old structures still around. I want to find those old projects and take pictures of them. You know, kind of try and capture the legacy.”
“Yeah I get it, and you sound like a damn text book,” Zach said mockingly.
“Hey, I need to know about the subjects if I’m going to be taking pictures of them.”
“Whatever you say man. All I know is I’m looking forward to seeing Zion National Park; that one sounded cool.”
Anthony said, “You’ll like a lot of the parks. There should be some interesting things around those areas too. Never know what you’ll find.”
“Yeah, you got that right. Only time I’ve been out west was when my family flew out to California, haven’t been anywhere within the interior.”
“Same, it should be an interesting experience. I know it’s not exactly your area of expertise, but let me know if you think of any ideas for pictures or subjects.”
“Yeah sure, I’ll let you know.”
Once again, the silence fell on the two friends. One focused on the possibility of capturing history on a strip of film while the other thought about the exploration of new lands. The duo travelled like Columbus setting course for the New World; despite knowledge of the sites and lands in which they were going to travel the lands remained unknown to them. Freedom raced across the landscape and they chased it like a starfish following the receding lines of a midday tide.
“You know something,” Zach said shifting his legs again and letting his socks touch the windshield, “You’re pretty much an FSA photographer now. You’re trying to prove the New Deal worked much like they did. Welcome, the first new one in almost a century.”
Anthony responded with a chuckle. “Ha. I guess you’re right. Me, an FSA photographer.”
He nodded his head in approval and let the words roll smoothly off his tongue. He felt a sense of belonging he hadn’t felt while working at the accounting firm. To Anthony, the honor became a welcome surprise and he would grip to the title for the entirety of the trip.
The FSA Photographer
The photograph is no longer merely an illustration. Groups of photographs properly selected, edited, and captioned, are giving a new turn to modern journalism. The camera in the proper hands should become a worthy aid to government agencies. The Farm Security Administration has recognized this new trend in photography. It has accepted the camera as an essential aid in presenting the problems with which it has to work; and to convey to interested persons the progress made in dealing with these problems. In short, it has accepted the camera as its first class reporting mechanism.
The very nature of our file requires qualifications from our photographic staff far beyond artistry and mechanical skill. Alone in the field the FSA photographer must be able to interpret what he sees from many aspects: He must be a good deal of a social scientist, with some theoretical and much practical grounding; he is a social investigator with the camera as his notebook.
This sample is only a small portion of the work I have completed for the book. In later chapters I plan to include a number of photos along with shooting scripts. This photo-shooting script combination will come from the main character himself as a project which he will be trying to complete. The following picture-shooting script combinations are only a small selection of what I plan to have finished in the final product:
Before you touch your camera, look over the town carefully. Walk or drive the town. Look at the people, at the stores, stop at the street corners, and listen in at the filling station and the saloon. Then go back to your hotel and try to write an answer to this question, “Why does this town exist?”
Part II – Industry
1. The Factory, Its Processes and Workers:
A. Exterior Views of typical factories to show style of building, care of yards.
I stress once again that this is only a short sample of the photos and quotes which I plan to use. However, these two photos successfully display the two extremes which I plan to undertake in the representation of the various shooting scripts. Some photos will follow be paired with quotes allowing for more personal interpretation by the reader as shown by the first pair. Others will simply show the script along with the literal subject. I also plan to play with these two extremes and choose some photos that fit into each individual category.
One of the main goals behind this trip was to find research some of the ways in which the New Deal shaped the country. However, as I toured the country I realized more and more that I started to also undertake a general survey of the country and some of the ways in which it had changed. Along with finding a variety of buildings and structures from the 1930s, I also found a number of sights which seemed to represent lost ideas behind the old ideals of Americana.
Such photos as these made me reflect upon the purpose behind my trip. I started to document several of these feelings and notions through pictures such as these where the old west seems to clash with the encroaching ideals of new Americana. In the spirit of such pursuits, I also created a number of more interpretive photos in which I created a variety of signs using different materials. I inscribed some of these signs with old symbols used once by the hobos of the 1930s. (NOTE: I attribute the idea of signs with 1930s hobo symbols to Christiane Buuck, my STEP adviser. THANKS FOR YOUR HELP!) The following photos were taken with the help of my friend, Andrew Staggs, who accompanied me on the trip (Another thank you goes out to him!).
These more interpretive and artistic pieces will serve as side projects to the main project of my book. I plan to investigate other possible projects and ideas through which these resources can be used.
To conclude this short reflection, I’d like to say what an amazing experience this project provided. Through the trip I learned a lot about myself and about the country as a whole. I gained a wealth of research and knowledge to use in the creation of my STEP book. I also pursued additional pursuits such as the ones labelled in this report. I realized that the New Deal greatly changed the American landscape. It built up the natural wonders of the nation while employing thousands of hopeless men. However, it also did something else for America. It built into the very character of the American identity and helped to stimulate the hope that people needed. Through the course of my investigation into these matters I became continually inspired to create new projects and pursue a variety of new ideas. I look forward to working on these projects and finding new ways to go about displaying these more creative venues. The resources listed here are just a fraction of the materials I have prepared. I hope to have all the materials in use during the creation of additional projects.