Picturing Faith


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Photography and the Great Depression

Colleen McDannell

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In the midst of the Great Depression, the American government initiated one of the most ambitious national photographic projects ever undertaken. Such photographers as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks—all then virtually unknown—were commissioned to chronicle in pictures the economic struggle and social dislocation of the Depression era. They explored every facet of rural life in an effort to document the troubles, as well as the spirit, of the nation.

Fanning out across the country, these photographers captured a nation alive with religious faith—from Dust Bowl migrants singing hymns to orthodox Jews praying in rural Connecticut. In Picturing Faith, the preeminent historian of religion Colleen McDannell recounts the history of this extraordinary project, telling the stories of the men and women who participated in it and exploring these little-known images of America.

Lavishly illustrated, Picturing Faith teases out the various and conflicting ways that these photographers portrayed American religion and enhances our understanding of how religion was practiced during this critical period of American history.

Colleen McDannell is professor of history and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah.

"In Picturing Faith, Colleen McDannell continues her trail-blazing path in American religious history. She takes conventional wisdom about spiritual decline in the Depression era and turns it on its head. This is a very special book, and will be a touchstone for future scholarship."—Gary Laderman, Emory University

"This is a unique and fascinating book. Picturing Faith will enliven our understanding of both American religion and the Great Depression. Colleen McDannell superbly integrates photography with history—rarely does a book cross disciplines so dramatically and beautifully."—Jon Butler, Yale University

"Colleen McDannell has performed a service to American religious history by situating these photographs in a rich interpretive context."—John P. Ferré, American Journalism


“During the Depression the Farm Security Administration dispatched a band of photographers including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to document various facets of rural existence. This striking book, with its lengthy and intelligent text by the historian of religion Colleen McDannell, collects the FSA photos of rural religious culture. . . . [The photographers] captured both its stark inwardness and the ways in which it was integrated into and nurtured community life.”—Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly

“[A] fascinating study. . . . McDannell’s great contribution here is to break through the coffee-table familiarity of the most famous Depression photographs to reveal a world beyond those images. . . . They remind us of the inner spiritual lives of the photographers’ subjects–restoring to view a hidden dimension of their humanity—and of the rich and various textures of American religious experience.”—Wen Stephenson, Boston Globe

"Picturing Faith is a rich combination of sharply insightful social and religious history and sympathetic but astute aesthetic criticism."—David E. Anderson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram


"McDannell solidifies her standing as a scholar who uses material culture to scrutinize American religious life. . . . McDannell's commentary and her careful reading of the photographs indicate that historians have much to learn from the artifacts of material culture that sustain everyday life."—Charles H. Lippy, History

"Abundantly illustrated with these wonderful, nearly forgotten black-and-white images."—Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent

"This is a very valuable study, important not only as it extends our understanding of the Historical Section, but as it also provides additional insight into the diversity of American culture during the Depression." —Timothy J. Garvey, Journal of Illinois History

“This book is a significant addition to our understanding of the importance of religion in the Great Depression.”—Publishers Weekly

“A fascinating study. . . . Picturing Faith is a rich combination of sharply insightful social and religious history and sympathetic but astute aesthetic criticism. It is an essential contribution to understanding the ‘cultural worth’ of religious life at a critical moment in the nation’s history.”—David E. Anderson, Seattle Times

"McDannell has produced a beautiful, complex book."—Rebecca Sharpless, Journal of Southern History

"McDannell creates a study and analysis that is convincing, cogent, and useful."—John H. Lawrence, Louisiana History

"A fascinating vision of religion in Depression-era America."—Cara A. Finnegan, American Historical Review

"McDannell is a first-rate historian and a perceptive 'reader' of photogaphs, always alert to their nuances and implications. Glance at any one of the book's many beautiful illustrations and you will learn from it. Next, read her interpretation of it; your second look at the picture will then disclose far more. She makes you realize that the old saysing 'the camera never lies' is itself no more than a half-truth."—Patrick Allitt, The Historian

"McDannell makes available a previously unknown cache of materials for the study of religion in the United States and presents a compelling examination of its contribution and significance. . . . Readers . . . will come away with a  profound understanding of the complexities of depicting religion photographically."—Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Religious Studies Review
ISBN: 9780300184464
Publication Date: November 30, 2011
336 pages, 7 x 10
128 b/w illus.

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