First published in Life Magazine's February 1937 issue, World's Highest Standard of Living became instantly recognizable to many Americans during the Great Depression for its starkly ironic juxtaposition of an idealized America alongside the grimmer aspects of everyday reality. Often thought to be an unemployment line, the photo was actually taken in Louisville after the flooding of the Ohio River, which killed almost 400 people and displaced about a million more across four states.
I can vividly remember my first encounter with World's Highest Standard of Living in a book my parents owned called The Best of Life. Published in 1973, The Best of Life chronicles life in the 20th century through photographs taken around the world. I became fascinated with the photos in this book and looked through it countless times; it became an early source of cultural and historical literacy for me. Selected from past issues of Life, the photographs varied between the celebratory, the joyous, and the violently horrific, providing me with my earliest impressions of how great and how terrible people could be to one another.
The photographer Margaret Bourke-White took World's Highest Standard of Living along with many other iconic photos featured in The Best of Life. Other easily recognizable photos include Gandhi and his spinning wheel, families during the Dust Bowl, and prisoners of war during World War II, among others. Bourke-White's contributions to photography in the 20th century were considerable by any standard. She was Life's first female photojournalist; she even took the photo on the cover of the first issue. She was the first Western photographer allowed to take pictures of Soviet industry and she later became the first female war correspondent during World War II.
Though many of Bourke-White's photographs hold iconic status in our pictorial history of the 20th century, World's Highest Standard of Living remains one of her most famous. I can think of few other photographs that juxtapose prosperity and poverty in America in such black and white terms, literally and figuratively. Its implicit criticism of race and class seems to have enduring resonance in American culture. It was appropriated for the cover of Curtis Mayfield's 1975 album, (There's No Place Like) America Today. It inspired a similar billboard in the future dystopia of the film Brazil as well and was recreated by graffiti art pioneer Freedom (AKA Chris Pape) in one of his murals in the eponymous Freedom Tunnel inhabited for years by New York City's homeless population.
If you think Margaret Bourke-White's World's Highest Standard of Living is one of best works of American art, vote for it to be displayed on billboards nationwide as part of the Art Everywhere campaign. Today is the final day to vote! Final selections will be announced June 20.
1 day 13 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago Bring Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom home with you with our spectacular throw you can hang, hug, or drape.
1 day 18 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago “A beautiful display of two of americas greatest artists. Two black men with vision, talent and courage… They tell the aspects of our lives from a soul perspective.”
Thanks to Common for his thoughtful response to Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem. See the exhibition before it closes this Sunday.
1 day 20 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago Curator Judy Barter highlights the unexpectedly poignant story behind Double Portrait of the Artist in Time by American surrealist Helen Lundeberg.
Visit America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s and explore the rich cross-section of American artists seeking to forge a new national identity in troubled times.