Investigating US History

The Big Strike:
Labor Unrest in the Great Depression

Document Analysis C. The Photographic Record

“It takes two to make a truth.”

-- Frederich Nietzsche


“…who are you who will read these words and study these photographs?”

-- James Agee

Select three pictures from The Photographic Record below that you find particularly interesting and add to your understanding of the Big Strike.   Post on the discussion board five paragraphs analyzing the information in the photos.

Questions you may wish to consider:

  • What is your overall impression of the photographs?   Which individual items stand out?   (You might want to divide the photographs in quadrants and study each section to see what new details become visible.)
  • What, if anything, surprises you in the photographs?   The French scholar Roland Barthes called the most poignant element or “accident” of a photograph its “punctum” – that which shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces you.   What is the punctum in your photographs?
  • What are the sounds suggested by the photographs? In other words, listen to the photographs. Try to imagine the sounds of the scene depicted or the smells in the air. Use all of your senses.
  • What is the photograph's point of view? All pictures are filtered through an individual's imagination and point of view. What is the evidence of this filtering process in the photo? How would you describe their point of view? Are the photographers taking sides in the photographs?

Respond to at least two of your classmates' analyses, focusing on those statements with which you particularly agree or disagree.   If you find a particular thread or discussion interesting, you may add to it.





C1. See photographs and documents in the Waterfront Workers History Project’s special section, “1934: The Great Strike.”







Longshoremen unloading cargo from a freighter by handtruck, 1906

C2. See photographs from ILWU Local 23’s collection. The Waterfront Workers History Project.






Dorothea Lange, San
Francisco Waterfront, 1934

C3. View Dorothea Lange's photographs of the strike and
San Francisco's waterfront and skid row during the Great Depression.




Dorothea Lange

C4. Read an oral history interview with Dorothea Lange.

“I thought I better go there and see why these people were demonstrating, what it was about. I had more confidence then, because I had gone down with the dregs. This was a social demonstration. So I said, ‘I will set myself a big problem. I will go there, I will photograph this thing, I will come back, and develop it. I will print it, and I will mount it and I will put it on the wall, all in twenty-four hours. I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightening that is going on and finish it.'"