Free Chrysler photo exhibition explores the Great Depression in Hampton Roads

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A Hampton Roads man working with a block of ice during the Great Depression.
A man working with a block of ice is photographed and on display in the exhibit’s labor section. (Justin Belichis/Southside Daily)

NORFOLK — People throughout the United States felt a similar sting during the Great Depression, and life in Hampton Roads was no exception.

The stock market crashed, farm land was unhealthy, companies shut down and people lost their jobs. The average person seemed to live just to survive.

Today, photos tell the narrative of hopelessness before the second World War.

“A New Deal Near Here: Depression-Era Photography from the Chrysler Museum” will feature 46 photos taken in Hampton Roads cities during the Great Depression.

John Vachon (American, 1914–1975). Construction Worker and Family Living in Trailer Camp, Portsmouth, Virginia,March 1941. Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1984 Chrysler Museum purchase.
John Vachon (American, 1914–1975). Construction Worker and Family Living in Trailer Camp, Portsmouth, Virginia, March 1941. Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1984 Chrysler Museum purchase.

“We decided to focus on the photos from this region in particular, so it’s Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News and up the Eastern Shore,” Seth Feman, curator of photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art, said in an interview.

“We started looking for themes… so there’s migration, labor, leisure, home life and faith. The images are clustered around those ideas.”

The photos are part of a collection the Chrysler owns featuring hundreds of images taken during the Great Depression.

Deborah Schoen, curatorial research intern, did the lion’s share of bringing the exhibit together, according to Feman.

Schoen said she meticulously chose the photos on display, interviewed people who lived in Hampton Roads during the Great Depression and even visited the sites featured in some of the photographs.

“There were a lot of industries in our region that kept our area afloat during the Great Depression… so we have an image of a fisherman, the shipyard and the ice industry,” Schoen said. “We focused on industries we actually had.”

A photo of a man delivering ice to a neighborhood is featured in the exhibit’s labor section. Schoen interviewed a man who lived in Hilton Village who had memories of the iceman coming to his neighborhood.

“When he was chipping away at the blocks, he would hand pieces to the kids,” Schoen said.

Another image, on display in the exhibit’s faith section, is a picture men eating at a Salvation Army in Newport News. Schoen said the story makes it her favorite photograph.

John Vachon (American, 1914–1975) Men Eating at Salvation Army, Newport News, Virginia, March 1941. Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1984 Chrysler Museum purchase.
John Vachon (American, 1914–1975) Men Eating at Salvation Army, Newport News, Virginia, March 1941. Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1984 Chrysler Museum purchase.

“He was the mayor of Newport News,” Schoen said about the man in a Brooks Brothers suit. “But it’s not titled that, and we would have never known that. He was a huge contributor to the Jewish and Christian community in Newport News.”

Photographers whose images are featured in the exhibit, like Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon, were hired by the Farm Security Administration to aid farmers whose land had been wiped out during this time.

While they didn’t pick up a plow or a hoe, they did show government officials postcard-proof of the depression’s impact on American life, not only as photographers, but as social investigators.

“What made this agency so unique was that it had a team of photographers. So in a way, they kind of became popular… other government agencies would borrow them,” Schoen said. “So they sent them out and we have four photographers who made their way to our region.”

Old Dominion University Professor of History Peter Stewart said these photos were propaganda to support President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“Here’s a part of a New Deal project that’s more or less propaganda,” Stewart said.

Jack Delano (American, 1914–1997)Migratory Agricultural Worker Waiting at the Little Creek End of the Norfolk-Cape Charles Ferry, July 1940 Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1984 Chrysler Museum purchase.
Jack Delano (American, 1914–1997). Migratory Agricultural Worker Waiting at the Little Creek End of the Norfolk-Cape Charles Ferry, July 1940. Gelatin silver print (photograph), printed 1984 Chrysler Museum purchase.

“What they were trying to do is point out how the New Deal was helping… It’s also related to the National Archive’s writer’s project, where people interviewed relatively poor people and what their lives were all about,” he added.

The opening reception and exhibition talk will be Saturday, April 15 at the Willoughby-Baylor House at 2 p.m.

The exhibit is free, and will be open on weekends from noon to 5 p.m. until April 1, 2018.

“Many of us are familiar with the big story, but you get a unique sense of how that story was lived out here,” Feman said. “You really get a sense of individual experience and a regional experience.”

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