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1930s Documentary and Visual Culture

2. 1929 to 1945

2. 1929–1938

  1. Paula Rabinowitz

Published Online: 13 NOV 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470671153.wbhaf026

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

How to Cite

Rabinowitz, P. 2011. 1930s Documentary and Visual Culture. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. 2:2:26.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 13 NOV 2011


In the 1870s and 1880s, illustrated newspapers and journals in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago circulated black-and-white images to accompany serialized fiction by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, and the sensational pulp writer Eugène Sue in France, whose novel Les Mystères de Paris inspired George W. M. Reynolds's Mysteries of London series. These woodcuts, engravings, and drawings, by artists such as Luke Samuel Fildes and Hubert von Herkomer in Britain and Felix Régamey in France, brought both the news and the tales to life through intricately detailed characterizations. These visual artists and many others like them roamed the streets of cities in England, France, the United States, and even South Africa, recording the “Heads of the People,” as one series was called, who were found in the various trades and industries, haunting medical clinics, and in poor houses. Men were shown slaving in gold mines or coal pits, for example, or working on a chain gang in prison stripes; women were shown bent over looms or gathered on street corners in search of a trick. Only a generation before, exposés of London's poor or the conditions of the working class in England by Henry Mayhew and Frederick Engels offered language as the sole means to convey the horrific destitution caused by industrialization in Britain. But by the 1870s, visual images accompanying prose helped to democratize the circulation of ideas about social reform from a narrow base of socialist or at least socially minded intellectuals to a wider working-class public who, though they might not be fully literate, could respond to the immediacy of an image.


  • 1930s documentary;
  • visual culture;
  • public arts projects;
  • photography;
  • murals;
  • black-and-white;
  • magazines;
  • depression