Bring back some good or bad memories


March 19, 2022

At the Time of the Louisville Flood, 1937

A good photojournalist might count himself lucky if he gets only one of his images published in a leading newspaper. A good photo should be able to convey an entire story on its own, but sometimes the image itself might be misleading because of the time and place it was made. In this famous example, Margaret Bourke-White’s picture of a depression era food line has actually more to tell than its face value.

During the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937, men and women in Louisville, Kentucky, line up seeking food and clothing from a relief station, in front of a billboard proclaiming, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” (Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Margaret Bourke-White’s 1937 picture of African American men, women and children huddled in line before a billboard—on which a car bearing a beaming white family (and their dog!) appears to drive confidently into the future beneath the ultimately ironic slogan, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” The overhead picture also shows a  middle-class white family, smiling in their car with the tagline, “There’s no way like the American Way.”

The juxtaposition of the poor black people and the happy white family is quite striking, which makes this photograph one of the most recognizable images of the Great Depression. However, this is misleading as the image was taken right after the Ohio River Flood of 1937. Over one million residents were left homeless after the flood, which only exacerbated the conditions of the 1930s depression. A lot of residents had to resort to charitable donations after the catastrophe, and Bourke-White entitled the photograph, “Kentucky Flood.”

African Americans in Louisville, Kentucky, seek food and clothing from a relief station in the aftermath of flooding that devastated the city in 1937. The billboard in Margaret Bourke-White’s famous “American Way” photograph is visible in the background. (Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

While the lack of an appropriate description might mislead some into thinking that everywhere people were always in food lines around 1930s America, the photograph is still quite symbolic of the great depression.


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