In the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was desperate to garner public and political support for The New Deal, an ambitious program that, he hoped, would pump much needed stimulation into the United States’ stumbling economy. In 1933 the Senate Banking Committee held a series of hearings to investigate the financial practices of banking giant J.P. Morgan, Jr., who controlled the corporate behemoth founded by his father, and was also instrumental in establishing the Federal Reserve in 1913. Morgan’s high profile set the stage for his testimony to receive wide media coverage. This may have been the first event, in fact, to be dubbed a “media circus”.
Coincidentally, the Ringling Brothers Circus was in Washington during the dates of Morgan’s testimony. Capitalizing on this peculiar opportunity, the circus’ press agent arranged for one of its performers, a 27-inch-tall midget named Lya Graf, to be present at the public hearings. When Graf was awkwardly introduced to Morgan, she hopped onto his lap and sat like a child. This allowed for a most interesting photograph to be taken. Depicting a physically deformed sideshow performer sitting on the lap of a man who epitomized wealth and corporate greed, this image captures in a whimsical yet biting way the disparities between the rich and the poor in the United States during the height of corporate capitalism in the early 20th Century. Simultaneously silly and grotesque, the contrast between Graf and Morgan visually expresses the vast inequalities that defined the economic state of America in 1933. It was an image that spoke volumes.
This image resonates particularly well in modern day America, in which class division and unchecked corporate accumulation is reminiscent of the Depression Era. Imagine how poignant a photograph of Warren Buffet cradling an illegal Mexican laborer would seem in light of the current social and economic climate.
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