I only saw this picture for the first time last night. But it is a classic from Life magazine. The actual history of the photo isn’t quite as stark as the message of it. Just the same, the message that people take away from it is still true. There is a group of African Americans standing in a food line and behind them is a billboard featuring a a very white family (Even the dog is white!) that proclaims, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” The tag line — “There’s no way like the American Way” — takes on a whole different meaning than was originally intended.
The photograph was taken by Margaret Bourke-White during the 1937 Ohio River flood. This particular one was taken in Louisville, Kentucky. The only thing that really matters about this is that it explains why people are holding buckets. Even more than food, the people needed clean water. The area had received 18 inches of rain over a two week period. Check out all the pictures from the original article to see just how bad the situation was. But Bourke-White was known for her ironic photographs, and she certainly knew what she was doing. She was making a broader point.
The billboard was not, as one could reasonably assume, part of a government program to cheer people up and head off revolution. No, then as now, it is our private sector that is in the business of hoodwinking us into disbelieving our lying eyes. This billboard came courtesy of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). According to James Guimond in American Photography and the American Dream, photographers for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) took great relish in going after these kinds of things:
FSA photographers were quite assiduous in their pursuit of NAM and other big business propaganda billboards, and their irony was more deliberate. According to Arthur Rothstein, they considered the Manufacturers’ clichés about the American standard of living so absurd — at a time when millions of Americans were suffering from the depression — that they treated the billboards as fair game for visual ironies.
What I think is so amazing about this whole thing is that nothing has changed — except that people working for the government wouldn’t think of taking potshots at big business today. I’m reminded of this every time I hear someone claim that America has the best healthcare in the world. What they actually mean is that if you are rich you can get the best healthcare in the world here. Of course, you can do the same thing in Germany, France, and Japan — but let’s not go there right now. It’s ridiculous to think this way. It’s like saying, “Why did the French people revolt against King Louis XVI? His life was great!”
But I’m afraid that most Americans like their pretty delusions. But it gets harder and harder to maintain those delusions. I don’t think the inequities in our society today cause people to be outraged the way they did in the 1930s. Instead, we’ve reverted to an older and more cynical view of the world: the rich are rich simply because they are; the poor are poor because that is what they deserve; God wills it. This is not a rational response.
 Margaret Bourke-White was not part of the FSA.