Photos filled with the forlorn faces of hungry and impoverished Americans that came to characterize the desolation of the Great Depression are among the best known artworks of the twentieth century. Captured by the camera's eye, these stark depictions of suffering became iconic markers of a formative period in U.S. history. Although there has been an ample amount of critical inquiry on Depression-era photographs, the bulk of scholarship treats them as isolated art objects. And yet they were often joined together with evocative writing in a genre that flourished amid the period, the documentary book. American Modernism and Depression Documentary looks at the tradition of the hybrid, verbal-visual texts that flourished during a time when U.S. citizens were becoming increasingly conscious of the life of a larger nation.
Jeff Allred draws on a range of seminal works to illustrate the convergence of modernism and documentary, two forms often regarded as unrelated. Whereas critics routinely look to James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as the sole instance of the modernist documentary book, Allred turns to such works as Richard Wright's scathing 12 Million Black Voices, and the oft-neglected You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White to open up the critical playing field. And rather than focusing on the ethos of Progressivism and/or the politics and aesthetics of the New Deal, Allred emphasizes the centrality of Life magazine to the consolidation of a novel cultural form.