Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Burl Noggle


From 1918 to 1941, fast-paced changes and far-reaching crises occurred in all realms of American life--social, economic, political, cultural, and intellectual. Evidence of the culture's preoccupations showed up not only in written, but also in visual sources. Photographs helped to reveal the values of American culture, and did so with increasing frequency as the photographic process was further improved. Each visual image bore the marks of its culture, yet none provided a completely objective look at reality. For every picture was the product of the personality standing behind the camera. This study examines both the lives and the photographs of five women who took pictures in the 1920s and 1930s. These five--Doris Ulmann, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott, and Marion Post Wolcott--were selected for several reasons: each made considerable contributions to photography's development, in a historical sense; each produced perceptive works reflecting American thought and life in these decades; and each displayed a unique style, indicative of type and amount of artistic training, political background, varying financial constraints, and sources of support, some private and some public. Together, the five produced a corps of visual images that epitomized the nature of American culture and character in two decades marked by tremendous changes in all realms. Their work covers as broad a spectrum in tastes, methods, and visions, as any in the history of photography. That these woman worked during such a critical time in the nation's history simply augments their personal achievements. In using photographs as historical evidence, I have examined photographic series of particular subjects, rather than isolated images. I have discussed various sources of funding photographers relied upon, and I have analyzed the extent to which these sources influenced the kinds of photographs that resulted. The main line of argument throughout the study deals with how methods and directions of photography itself changed in these two decades; how these five women I have studied served as both vehicles for, and creators of, change; and how Americans, both collectively, and as individuals, were portrayed through the medium of photography.