Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Dust Bowl Through the Lens

The Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster
by Martin W. Sandler
Walker Publishing Company, 2009
review copy provided by the publisher

I'm probably not a completely unbiased reviewer of this book -- my dad was born in a sod house in Eastern Colorado in the late 1920's. I heard stories of the Depression and the Dust Bowl all my growing up life on the flat, arid, treeless, barren landscape of the photos in this book. (So you can decide how much you want to trust my assessment of this book.)

This book is fabulous on many levels. First of all, it is inviting and accessible. Every double page spread has a short essay with a telling title and quote that functions as a subheading on the left, and a period photo that illustrates the essay on the right. The photos are so compelling that one way to read the book is simply to look at the photos and read the captions.

As much as it is a book about the Dust Bowl, this is a book about the history of the development of photography as an art form...which just happened to take place during the years of and largely because of the Dust Bowl photographers.

This is a book about how art (photography) can be used to document and remedy social inequities.

It is a book not merely about what the Dust Bowl did to the people but also about what it did to the land -- it's a book about the importance of soil conservation and smart farming practices.

This book is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit and the will to survive. And we mustn't forget that the Dust Bowl also gave us The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie, The Wizard of Oz, and Will Rogers.

History was changed because of the Dust Bowl and because of the Depression, because of the Okies and because of Roosevelt's response to the economic tragedies of the nation at that time, because of photographers like Dorothea Lange and because of the photographs themselves. At the same time, photography evolved from a portrait-making tool, to a tool for social change. A new form of storytelling, photojournalism, was born of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, as were photographic essays. The way we get information and understand the world around us was radically changed during those years.

Like I said, this book is fabulous on many levels. Pick it up and take a look. I'm pretty sure you'll have a hard time putting it down without reading the whole thing.


  1. Hands down, my favorite unit of the year is a Great Depression unit I do with 8th graders. They are always amazed by pictures of dust storms. I try to use photographs and quotes to help the students understand what it was like to live during that time. I think this book will help with that. Thanks for the review.

  2. I checked this book out from the library the other day, so it's great to read your review as a preview. I wonder how/if it might be paired with Out of the Dust.

  3. Thanks, Mary Lee, for sending me this link. I'm definitely going to have to try to get this one on interlibrary loan. Looks amazing!

  4. If you liked this, take a look at Restless spirit : the life and work of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridge (Lange's niece). I will have to look at this one.


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