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‘Swirling Dust—River Rising’: A Comparative Analysis of Drought and Flooding in 1930s American Documentary Photography and Film


   Energy and Environment Institute

  Dr Barnaby Haran  Monday, January 31, 2022  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Hull United Kingdom American History Art Climate Science Cultural Geography Environmental Geography Film Studies History History Of Art Photography Social Geography

About the Project

About this project:

Myths of 1930s America typically invoke the ‘Dust Bowl’, but another ecological calamity occurred in the form of several major floods. Photographers and filmmakers chronicled the devastation of the Pittsburgh (1934), Johnstown (1936) and the Ohio River (1937) floods, forming an iconography of ruination analogous to scenes of drought albeit with distinct features. A key undertaking of the New Deal government’s relief programme was water management: providing water to drought regions, flood control, and the dam building programme of the Tennessee Valley Authority. If the drought relief Resettlement Administration was the cradle of documentary photography, then its photographers produced many images of flooding alongside more famous Dust Bowl studies. Similarly Pare Lorentz’s environmental films for the New Deal attended drought and flooding respectively with a pioneering documentary style. These scenes speak to the coextensive manifestation of drought and flooding in our contemporary climate crisis.

Whilst numerous studies have covered 1930s photographic culture, there is no specific interdisciplinary, comparative analysis of drought and flooding in documentary photographs and films. This project will study the photographs and films of drought and flooding as presented to the American public in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books, exhibitions, and film programmes, to divine the function and significance of documentary in a discourse on water management in the Depression era. The project will contrast images of dust and flood in relation to differing temporalities (gradualism of soil erosion versus immediacy of flood) and discrete aesthetic strategies. Did the liquid subject enjoin a divergent mode of imagery to dust? How did these works engage with other disciplinary forms (poetry, music, or fine art)? What variations in demographic effect were evident? How did narratives of race figure (e.g. Margaret Bourke-White’s scenes of displaced African American flood victims for Life magazine)? Did these works serve arguments around causality and blame?

About the research cluster:

The University of Hull Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarships Centre for Water Cultures is an interdisciplinary research centre exploring humanity’s relationships with water in the green-blue regions of the world, past, present and future. It pioneers a new, humanities-led, interdisciplinary and transhistorical research area – the green-blue humanities – and equips a new generation of PhD students to take this agenda forward and transform our understanding of humanity's relationships with water.

For more information, watch a recording of a webinar held on 7 December 2021. You'll hear from programme leaders, supervisors, and students talking about funded postgraduate research at the Leverhulme DSC for Water Cultures as well as queries from other applicants in the Q&A.


Funding Notes

Doctoral scholars appointed to interdisciplinary projects within the Centre for Water Cultures will be supported by PhD scholarships, funded for 48 months. These cover fees at the UK rate, a maintenance grant of £15609 per year (2021/22 rate), and a research and training support grant.

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