Hope in Hard Times: New Deal Photographs of Montana, 1936-1942
New Depression Book Shows Montanansí Indomitable Spirit
A new book by the Montana Historical Society Press finds inspiration for the human spirit amidst the depression of hard times.
Hope in Hard Times: New Deal Photographs of Montana, 1936-1942 provides sometimes haunting, sometimes beautiful, but always determined images of the people who lived through the stateís darkest hours.
Mary Murphy, author of the new book and professor of history at Montana State University, dedicates it "with deepest respect for those who navigated the Great Depression."
The book features 144 photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration as part of the New Deal.
Those assigned to depict the face of Montana through the cameraís lens from 1936 to 1942 were Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott, who all went on to become some of the United Stateís best-known professional photographers.
The photographers traveled the back roads of Montana from the depressed timber industry communities of the western mountains to the fast dying agricultural towns of the eastern plains.
"Today these striking images, from cities like Butte to small towns like Terry, present an unforgettable portrait of a little-studied period in the history of Montana," Society Director of Publications Clark Whitehorn said.
Murphy provides fascinating narrative on the history of the photographers who took the pictures as well as the people and communities that were their subject.
"Bess Harshbarger did not have many dresses," Murphy writes about the nine-year-old girl who peers back resolutely at the camera from the kitchen of her familyís hardscrabble home.
"There seems to be little maneuvering room for this young girl, child of the Great Depression," Murphy writes. "Yet she looks out at us with a clear, steady gaze, undefeated by hard times."
The challenges of telling the story of Montana in the Great Depression often frustrated the photographers and filled them with self-doubt, Murphy said.
John Vachon summed up his feelings in a letter to a friend back east: "Yep, itís wonderful the West but photographically I seem to be moving pretty clumsily through it Iím not very happy about anything Iíve done yet. I spend most of my time driving the car and singing Home on the Range."
Yet all of the photographers had a sense that what they were doing was important.
"Iím taking pictures of the history of today," Russell Lee wrote.
Only a handful of the photographs assembled by Murphy have ever been published before.
"This is a powerful book about survival and overcoming tough odds," Whitehorn said. "I think it is especially timely, as Montana and the nation confront the tough issues of today. We can draw some courage from Maryís book."
The 242-page book that includes more than 140 photographs and an index is available at most bookstores for $22 in paperback and in hardback for $39.95, or it can be ordered directly plus shipping from the Society by calling toll-free 1-800-243-9900.