Flood Refugees, Louisville, Kentucky

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  • Condition Report

  • Provenance

    Christie’s, New York, 26 April 1988, lot 88

  • Exhibited

    First International Photographic Exposition, Grand Central Palace, New York, 18-29 April 1938

  • Literature

    LIFE, 15 February 1937, p. 9
    Goldberg, Bourke-White, p. 76
    Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography, pl. 31
    Callahan, The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, pp. 136-137
    Callahan, Margaret Bourke-White: Photographs, p. 94
    Brown, Margaret Bourke-White: Photojournalist, p. 61
    Silverman, For All the World to See: The Life of Margaret Bourke-White, p. 124

  • Catalogue Essay

    Flood Refugees, Louisville, Kentucky, dramatizes the humanitarian crisis created by the flooding of the Ohio River in 1937, which killed nearly 900 people and displaced thousands more in Louisville, hitting that city’s African-American quarter especially hard. At the time, the Louisville flood was considered one of the three most disastrous floods in American history.

    Margaret Bourke-White was dispatched by LIFE magazine in January to cover the story, and she arrived on the last flight into Louisville before the airport closed. Hitching rides on rowboats and a raft, she made her way into the city and photographed throughout the flood zones. The photograph offered here is the best of that series, capturing the harsh juxtapositions of American life at the time in a single frame. It was first published in LIFE in February 1937. The irony of the billboard’s message was lost on no one: as LIFE’s caption wryly observed, 'It was going to take a lot of money to restore the American standard of living in the cities and towns of the Ohio Valley.'

    This photograph’s exhibition label attests to its early print date. It was shown in 1938 in the First International Photographic Exposition, held at the Grand Central Palace in New York City. Organized by photographer and LIFE photo editor Willard Morgan, the exhibition included a large selection of images by Bourke-White and a host of Farm Security Administration photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, and others. While Flood Refugees, Louisville, Kentucky, is one of the most famous of Bourke-White’s images for LIFE, few early prints, especially those with a documented exhibition history, are extant. It is believed that in recent years only one other early print has appeared at auction, in 2014.

    Bourke-White had covered the Dust Bowl for Fortune magazine in 1934, and the conditions she saw then opened her eyes to the devastating effects manmade and natural disasters could have on working people. Remembering the Louisville experience in her 1967 autobiography, she wrote, ‘To me this mammoth flood was another bitter chapter in the bleak drama of waste of our American earth, which I had watched unfolding and had tried to record since the drought. The juxtaposition of blowing soil and rainfall, of eroded farmlands and inundated cities, made an ominous continuing pattern’ (Portrait of Myself, p. 150).

4

Flood Refugees, Louisville, Kentucky

1937
Gelatin silver print.
9 5/8 x 13 1/8 in. (24.4 x 33.3 cm)
Credited and titled in a calligraphic hand in ink on the mount; credit stamp and titled in an unidentified hand in pencil and a gold foil 1938 Grand Central Exposition label on the reverse of the mount.

Estimate
$150,000 - 250,000 

Place Advance Bid

Contact Specialist
Caroline Deck
Senior Specialist, Head of Sale

Chris Mahoney
Senior International Specialist

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Deputy Chairman, Americas

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