On the Great Depression (?)


The Great Depression looms large in the modern imagination — especially in the light of the most recent financial crises.  But its scale is hard to fathom now. A crisis equivalent today would be the combination of the 1994 Mexican peso crises, the 1997-98 Asian & Russian crises, the 2000 dot com bubble, the 2007-8 financial crisis, according to the economist Liaquat Ahamed. And all these — a halt in capital flows, a collapse of market confidence, a frenzied bubble, and fall of major financial houses unfurled over a period of four years between 1929 and 1932 taking down 25% of global GDP, 25% of employment, and 40% of global bank credit.

The photo above by Margaret Bourke-White was surrounded by myths too; there are a few things it is not. It was not shot during 1929-32 crisis. It did not depict a breadline of workers laid off by the depression. The oft-repeated belief that this photo prompted Henry Luce — Life magazine’s patriarch and Bourke-White’s employer — to decide that his photographers deserved a byline was probably apocryphal too.  But the photo’s absurd slogan “World’s Highest Standard of Living” — absurdly jarring when the white ur-American family with their dog was juxtaposed with the queuing black people below — propelled it to become the Great Depression photo in recent years.

The people depicted were flood victims. Bourke-White took the photo in Louisville, Kentucky during her assignment to over the Ohio River flood of 1937. The floods claimed nearly 400 lives and left roughly one million people homeless across five states in the winter of that terrible year. The flood marked a catastrophic decade in America which began with the Mississippi Floods of 1927, the Great Depression, and the Dust Flood, straining Federal and local resources. A leviathan American state was born to tackle these series of calamities.

Partition of India

It was one of the most dunderheaded moves in an imperial history chockfull with them: the partition of India. Its population distribution was such that there was no line that could neatly divide up the subcontinent. Yet, a boundary commission was given mere six weeks to carve a Muslim-majority state from British India, and two Pakistans were formed. More ridiculous still, the commission was led by a British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe who had never been in the East before.

Indeed he was chosen because he knew nothing about India and therefore absolutely unbiased. Inexperienced and time-crunched, Radcliffe just drew some lines on the map without realizing that his demarcation line went straight through thickly populated areas, villages and sometimes even through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other. His error was pointed out by the commission but the scheduled independence day was looming and it was too late to redo the entire thing. Disgraced, Radcliffe refused his salary, quietly destroyed all his papers and left India on the Independence Day itself, before even the boundary awards were distributed. W.H. Auden later pilloried the absurdity of the way he crafted the border in Partition.

The immediate consequences of the partition were horrendous for both countries. Although in retrospect, there probably was nothing the commission could have done. Once the Moslems and the Hindus decided to part their ways, even the most carefully crafted border would have provoked the massive exoduses. But the hurried and indifferent nature of the partition meant the ethnic cleansing that followed was unavoidable.

In India during the Partition were two of the last century’s greatest photojournalists: Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson — both there to document Gandhi, Cartier-Bresson just a few hours before Gandhi assassination. Above, Bourke-White recorded streets littered with corpses, dead victims with open eyes, and refugees with vacant eyes. The partition was “massive exercise in human misery,” later reflected Bourke-White. Self-proclaimed Indophile, Cartier-Bresson later arrived a little later, documented the new way of life, from the fattened maharajahs at the top to those in refuge camps after the partition at the bottom. (below)

The Kremlin Bombarded



Unlike most photographers, she was as famous as her pictures. Margaret Bourke-White was an institution, and personification of the formative years of LIFE magazine. The images she captured are memorable enough on their own: a line of flood victims in Kentucky stretched in front of a billboard braying prosperity; Gandhi at the spinning wheel.

In July 26th 1941, she became the right person at the right place as the German bombardment of the Kremlin began. She was the only foreign photographer in Moscow–she was dispatched there because one of the Life editors, Wilson Hicks, believed that Germany would invade the Soviet Union soon.

Although the Soviet officials had announced that their soldiers would shoot anyone spotted with a camera, Bourke-White was granted an exception. On the night of July 23rd, she went up the American embassy roof where the Soviet air wardens couldn’t see her. At one point, a bomb exploded nearly, blowing every window of the embassy. Bourke-White had the sense to seek the shelter just seconds before.

The above most picture showed the spires of Kremlin silhouetted by German Luftwaffe flare, with the antiaircraft gunners dotting sky over Red Square. The second showed the Kremlin lit up by flares from anti-aircraft shells and seven Nazi parachute flares which provided light for German bombardiers.

All during her stay in the USSR, Bourke-White tried to photograph Stalin; she had been refused the opportunity on her earlier visits. When Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s adviser, reached Moscow on July 30, he found Bourke-White already there. The second time he met Stalin on July 31st, he got the permission for Bourke-White to photograph the meeting too.

Bourke-White at Buchenwald


At the end of WWII, impending Allied victory was sobered by the grim facts of the atrocities which allied troops were uncovering all over Germany. Margaret Bourke-White was with General Patton’s third amy when they reached Buchenwald on the outskirts of Weimar. Patton was so incensed by what he saw that he ordered his police to get a thousand civilians to make them see with their own eyes what their leaders had done. The MPs were so enraged they brought back 2,000. Bourke-White said, “I saw and photographed the piles of naked, lifeless bodies, the human skeletons in furnaces, the living skeletons who would die the next day… and tattoed skin for lampshades. Using the camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.”

LIFE magazine decided to publish these photos in their May 7, 1945 issue many photographs of these atrocities, saying, “Dead men will have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.”

Margaret Bourke-White


This picture of Life Magazine’s photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White atop the Chrysler Building was taken by her dark room assistant Oscar Graubner.

“Photography is a very subtle thing. You must let the camera take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you into your subject.” Margaret Bourke-White led the rest of us by the hand on many occasions. In 1929, she did the lead story for the first issue of Fortune, and the next year was the first Western photographer allowed into the USSR. In 1936, she collaborated with future husband Erskine Caldwell on a book documenting the rural poor of the South. Later that year she became one of the four original LIFE photographers, and had the cover shot for the inaugural issue.

She was America’s first accredited woman photographer in WWII, and the first authorized to fly on a combat mission. She was one of the first to depict the death camps, and later became the last person to interview Gandhi, six hours before he was slain. Her hundreds of thousands of photos are about adventure, sensitivity, composition and courage.

Gandhi at the Spinning Wheel


It was the defining portrait of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, but the picture almost didn’t happen. LIFE magazine’s first female photographer, Margaret Bourke-White was in India in 1946 to cover the impending Indian independence. She was all set to shoot when Gandhi’s secretaries stopped her: If she was going to photograph Gandhi at the spinning wheel (a symbol for India’s struggle for independence), she first had to learn to use one herself.

It was a rare photo-op and Bourke-White was not going to lose it. She learnt how to use the spinning wheel, but further demands followed–Gandhi wasn’t to be spoken to (it being his day of silence.) And because he detested bright light, Bourke-White was only allowed to use three flashbulbs. The humid Indian weather wreaked havoc on her camera equipment, too. She tried to take the picture without flash, but the bright Indian day hindered her further. [Less than stellar pictures can be seen here and here]

When time finally came to shoot, Bourke-White’s first flashbulb failed. And while the second one worked, she forgot to pull the slide, rendering it blank.She thought it was all over, but luckily, the third attempt was successful. In the end, she came away with an image that became Gandhi’s most enduring representation.