By: Shawn Simmons and Sarah Lovin
The Wealth of a Nation, the Struggle of its Inhabitants
Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) War on Poverty was announced in his very first State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964, a little over a month after JFK’s assassination. It was a time of relative peace and Lyndon B. Johnson, being born into poverty himself, believed that spending U.S. dollars to feed and bring proper medicine, education (see also Misrepresentations in Information Graphics: the American Educational Experience) and utilities to the poorest Americans was an appropriate way to use U.S. resources and be true to the socially progressive mission promised by JFK’s Civil Rights Bill.
Lyndon Johnson created programs like Head Start, provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families and Food Stamps program, which provides food purchasing assistance to low-income or no-income families living in the U.S., in his quest to create a “Great Moral Society.” It curbed malnutrition, brought electricity, and clean water to the most destitute places in America.
To inform and muster sympathy for his cause, Johnson traveled to Appalachia in Eastern Kentucky, a place of extreme poverty on April 24, 1964.
A few weeks after his stirring State of the Union Address a photo essay shot by John Dominis appeared in LIFE, the most widely circulated domestic weekly periodical in 1964 (See also Larry Burrows: Shooting Soldiers in Vietnam).
Photos like this one, of a toddler with Measles whose mother cannot afford to take her to the doctor, stirred the hearts of Americans.
Consider the two photographs below.
While the picture on top is painfully sad; five unwashed children in a poorly lit, filthy room, their mother a caricature of miserable anxiety, perhaps the one below is more stirring. The mother below has taken every resource and stretched it to make life as comfortable and “normal” as possible for her family. She papered the walls with what was available to her–newspaper. She and her family are clean, their clothing neat, tidy, and fit properly…yet the mothers above and below display the same posture, exuding the same panic and desperation.
Again we can look at two unpublished photographs of these two families.
The photo on the bottom seems to support the claim of LBJ and social progressives that the poor, if given opportunity and resources, will become productive members of the “Great Society” of America.
LBJ and his supporters had great hopes for his social reforms, and the community still sees the effects of it today (e.g. welfare). But his was a peace time plan, and as the Vietnam War escalated, the War on Poverty was largely forgotten. See more on Johnson’s “Great Society.”
Lyndon B Johnson’s Hope Still Stands
The home where the iconic photo of LBJ crouching to converse with an impoverished family in Eastern Kentucky still stands. And though it has been re-painted and one can see evidence of electricity, the county where it stands, Martin, remains one of the poorest in the nation.
About the Photographer
John Dominis was born in Los Angeles, California on June 27, 1921. At 22, he enlisted in the Air Force during World War II. Dominis began working as a freelance photographer, including LIFE magazine, after the war. Dominis worked the Korean War in 1950 and President Kennedy’s West Berlin speech in 1963. He also worked six summer Olympic Games. His most famous shot of those Olympic Games was during the 1968 Games was the Black Power salute of 200m bronze medalist, John Carlos and gold medalist, Tommie Smith.
In 1966, one of Dominis’ most famous works was heavily criticized. Dominis’ photograph, “A leopard about to kill a baboon,” was criticized for being a staged work. A hunter brought a captured leopard to herd of baboons. Most fled away immediately, but one of the baboons faced the leopard and was immediately killed. Dominis apologized for staging the picture, mentioning that during the 60s, staging pictures was a popular technique.
For LIFE, Dominis’ also shot the Vietnam War as well as Woodstock. He worked for People during the 70s and was an editor for Sports Illustrated from 1978-1982.
Dominis passed away at the age of 92 on December 30, 2013, in New York City.
In his feature for the January 31, 1964 issue of LIFE magazine titled, “The Valley of Poverty,” Dominis likely used a 35 millimeter camera with a 50 millimeter lens with fast film. There was no flash used; the light in the photographs was supplied by the light in the house.
Dominis, John. “The War on Poverty in the Pages of LIFE: Appalachia Portraits, 1964 | LIFE
| TIME.com.” LIFE. N.p., 31 Jan. 1964. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
“Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society'” Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d.
Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Fessler, Pam. “Kentucky County That Gave War On Poverty A Face Still Struggles.” NPR.
NPR, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.