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Photographs of Hardship Inspire Perseverance and Hope for Today

A recent historical photography exhibit invites you to consider how looking to the past can strengthen and inspire your life today.

Picture this photograph: A man stands on snowy train tracks in front of an ore car in northern Utah. Both his face and his threadbare clothing appear wrinkled and worn. His hands are covered by dark gloves, and he slings the wooden handle of a pickax wearily over his left shoulder. A metal lunch pail hangs from the crook of his left elbow. His expression is determined but tired as he looks into the camera from underneath the brim of his cap.

Utah Miner working for the Blue Blaze Mine in Carbon County holds his dinner pail (Photograph by Dorothea Lange)

This photograph is just one of many featured in the recent Museum of Art exhibit titled Fields of Labor and Recovery. The exhibit, curated by Professor James Swensen (Comparative Arts & Letters), displays the devastation and poverty afflicting Utah families during the Great Depression’s drought and unemployment—especially the families in the farming and mining communities. The photographs documented some of the “most dire, deplorable conditions in the 20th century,” Swensen explained, conditions that included impoverishment, loss of jobs or homes, hunger, and a lack of resources.

The exhibit highlights how things began to improve during the late 1930s and early 1940s because of how important local farming and mining had become to the war effort. As a result, jobs and money became more widely available and the quality of life began to improve.

When asked why such a tumultuous time is relevant today, Swensen said, “We look back to these moments of trauma to figure out how to navigate our own challenges, and to give [ourselves] hope. . . . We want to know how they came out of it—how they came out of the Depression and the war and arrived at a better spot. This gives us an example that can help us to know that things will work out.”

The exhibit includes sixty images from photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and focus on the pioneer heritage, mining and farming lifestyles, and poverty of the early Saints in Utah. Swensen noted that while the photographers displayed vivid details of the people’s hardship, “they also [projected] a hopeful image of America.”

The Fields of Labor and Recovery exhibit is on display in the Museum of Art until November 20, 2021.