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Margaret Bourke-White

The Louisville Flood

1937, printed c. 1970

Artist

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

Title

The Louisville Flood

Date

1937, printed c. 1970

Medium

Gelatin silver print

Dimensions

Image: 9 11/16 × 13 3/8 in. (24.6 × 34 cm) Mount (board): 15 15/16 × 19 7/8 in. (40.5 × 50.5 cm)

Credit line

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Sean Callahan

Accession number

92.58

Object Label

In January 1937, the swollen banks of the Ohio River flooded Louisville, Kentucky, and its surrounding areas. With one hour’s notice, photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White caught the next plane to Louisville. She photographed the city from makeshift rafts, recording one of the largest natural disasters in American history for Life magazine, where she was a staff photographer. The Louisville Flood shows African-Americans lined up outside a flood relief agency. In striking contrast to their grim faces, the billboard for the National Association of Manufacturers above them depicts a smiling white family of four riding in a car, under a banner reading “World’s Highest Standard of Living. There’s no way like the American Way.” As a powerful depiction of the gap between the propagandist representation of American life and the economic hardship faced by minorities and the poor, Bourke-White’s image has had a long afterlife in the history of photography. Its subsequent popularity as an illustration of chronic poverty and inequality was somewhat misleading, however. The photograph’s subjects were actually on line for food provided by a temporary relief agency; they had come from an area of the city that had been especially damaged by the flood.

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