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Visualizing Hunger in a ‘City of Plenty’

Bread Line Iconographies in the Aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Susanne Leikam


Pages 583 - 606



The large-scale destruction of San Francisco after the earthquake and fires of 1906 confronted city authorities with the unprecedented task of providing food and water for several hundred thousand survivors. The long bread lines stretching through the ruined city were readily taken up as popular motifs by the masses of amateur and professional photographers and thus emerged as an iconic sight of the 1906 calamity. This article explores various transmedial framings of the bread lines and pays particular attention to the pictorial repertoire, reoccurring patterns and motifs, and the cultural functions performed by these visual representations. It also delves into the questions of the ethics of gazing at destruction and destitution and considers the effect of the sensationalist and voyeuristic visuals on financial aid and charity. Through a close examination of the disaster relief, this analysis also investigates the invisibilities and gaps in the bread line narratives and exposes strategic narrative appropriations of the bread lines as well as the discriminatory processes and the violence that accompanied the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

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