SASHANICHOLAS: Ben Shahn was hired in 1935 as part of the New Deal to go take photographs in a town called Scotts Run in West Virginia. And there were striking miners there. It was one of the areas that had been most severely hit after the Depression. And he took a lot of photographs, which he then later, in the years to follow, transformed into paintings. This one is from 1937.
ADAMWEINBERG: Striking miners may call to mind people who are active and angry, whereas these men look abject and still. The one on the right has time to engage our view; the one in the middle is smoking a cigarette.
SASHANICHOLAS: You can imagine that—you know, this is six years into the Depression—that there was probably, by this time, a real sense of hopelessness. I mean, this sense that things aren’t getting better. And the economy is not recovering. These guys certainly have the feeling of people who’ve been waiting a long time for things to get better, and they’re not.
ADAMWEINBERG: They are trapped not only by their real-life poverty, but formally, in this painting—between the line of train cars on one side and the line of houses on the other. The houses being the only addition that Shahn made to the photograph when rendering it in paint.