Britain’s gradual economic recovery from the Great War was slowed in 1925 when Churchill, the Conservative Chancellor, restored Sterling to the gold standard. The new exchange rate increased the price of British exports, especially by the country’s core heavy industries. Owners tried to hold down export prices by lowering workers’ wages; industry was starved of investment and modernisation; and unemployment in the 1920s rose to a high plateau of 1 million. Unfortunate as the effects were on British workers, there was far worse to come.
In 1929 infectious speculation by the US “share-owning democracy” led to the collapse of the New York Stock Market and the Great Depression. World trade shrank as the nations affected by the American crisis erected trade barriers and tariffs. Governments faced financial disruption when the supply of credit from a reeling American banking system withered. The adherence to ‘classical’ economics – a balanced budget at any cost – by the new Labour government of Ramsey MacDonald was followed by pressure from the Liberals and the Conservative opposition to cut public sector wages and to reduce public sector spending. Two thirds of the proposed savings were to be garnered from unemployment benefit.
The hammer fell hardest on those areas to the west and north of the Jurassic limestone ridge that ran from Lyme Bay to the Humber and divided barren uplands, dependent on extraction and manufacturing, from the fecund lowlands of the south. The south and the Midlands fared comparatively well through the 1930s, with agriculture, the motor industry, house-building and developing light industries supplying a closed loop of local consumer markets. But the effects on the already-reeling industrial areas of the United Kingdom were immediate. Coal mining, steel, textiles, ship building suffered from lack of investment and demand. The north east and the South Wales Valleys were especially vulnerable to laissez-faire economics grounded in mass unemployment, destitution, soup kitchens and the humiliation of the means test. Economic turmoil was matched by political turmoil, with a so-called ‘National Government’ dominated by Conservatives, with Oswald Mosely quitting the Labour Party to found the British Union of Fascists and, as the governing class shifted generally to the right, with an unhealthy and sometimes treasonous pandering to ideologues in Italy and Germany. Social turmoil was not far behind as racism and antisemitism followed fascism and the political left rose in opposition.
Photography, and particularly film, was proving a potent tool in the hands of European fascism. Leni Riefenstahl’s official record of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally re-enforced the choreography of symbols and massed ranks that was at the core of Adolf Hitler’s appeal to national pride and solidarity. The sinister magnetism of ‘Triumph of the Will’ is still apparent. Her subsequent offerings in support of the National Socialist state celebrated ethnic superiority and communal well-being; the corollary of Aryan self-glorification was the denigration of ‘the other’. The set pieces of cinema were transmuted to seductive still photographs; and venomous imagery of ‘the other’ created scapegoats that distracted the populace from political reality.
The democracies were free from the coercion of totalitarianism, free to explore, record and criticise the effects of political insouciance and economic decline. Photographers were influenced by documentary filmmakers like John Grierson and Robert Flaherty and were drawn to communities in distress (while posing the same questions about ethics and authenticity). Documentary photography flourished through magazines dedicated to dynamic photo-journalism. In the United Kingdom photographers were instrumental in raising public awareness as the government floundered through half-hearted attempts to stimulate recovery by public works, loans and tariffs. In the USA they were an integral part of an holistic New Deal for devastated industrial regions and for a rural America ravaged by poverty and environmental catastrophes.
In Britain the scene was set for the coming World War, the London Blitz and for the bombsites of the dismal 1950s when the nation struggled through reconstruction and slow recovery – subjects that led to an emphasis on the microcosm and the local. In America, the documentary efforts of the 1930s laid the foundations for a very different post-war reportage, dictated by a very different, continental, geography.