Sunday, February 17, 2013

Documentary Rhetoric: "More American Photographs"

America of the Depression era remains vivid in historical memory thanks to the ambitious scope of President Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration's (FSA's) documentary photographic project; thanks to the passion of the men and women behind the cameras. 

Dorothea Lange, Family between Dallas and Austin, Texas, 1936,
 Inkjet Print, Courtesy the Library of Congress, Washington DC. 8" x 10."
2012 brought to the Columbus Museum of Art the stirring work of the 1930s New York Photo League documentarians, shown in The Radical Camera. Now, at the Wexner Center for the Arts, we have More American Photographs. This show reviews  famous FSA images that documented conditions among the "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished" across rural and small town America. The selection of photographs by Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange and their nine colleagues are displayed among the work of twelve contemporary photographers, who include Larry Clark, Catherine Opie, and Hank Willis Thomas. Today's twelve were charged in 2010 with their similar mission by Jens Hoffman, curator of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco. 

In a document that leads into the show, dramatically headed, "To All Photographers: Assignment," Hoffman declares, "I would like to send you into America to take photographs.  

Larry Clark, Adam, Marfa, TX, 2011. 
Archival  inkjet print.Courtesy the artist 
and Luhring Augustine, New York.
 24 x 17.3."
"This is an invitation to go out into the city or the country and to survey this land with all its blessings and all its shortcomings. I have selected you from among your peers as I see in your work a curiosity and determination to get to the heart of your subject and evoke feelings that can be universally comprehended. I know that you can tell a story, make pictures that are genuine, and recognize the pertinent things in a particular situation, whether an element of geography or a human being. In your photographs, I perceive a sincere, passionate love of people and respect for people."

The guiding idea for More American Photographs was to reexamine the legacy of the FSA photography during America's deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Hoffman's Assignment is an invitation to documentation as an act of rhetoric as highly colored as propaganda. His slightly archaic syntax ("this land with all its blessings and all its shortcomings") would seem to mimic the historical body of FSA work itself, by now grown slightly sentimental. Contemporary artists do not speak of "blessings and shortcomings" when they engage with issues of economic and social conditions. 

Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper.
Hale County, Alabama, 1935 or 1936, 
Inkjet Print, Courtesy the Library of Congress, 
Washington DC. 10" x 8."
Displayed at the head of More American Photographs, alongside Hoffman’s mission statement, are directions prepared by Roy Stryker for the use of his photographers in the ‘30s. These lists are not rhetorical per se. But implicit in the guidelines is a rhetoric Stryker expects to appear in the images that respond to his prompts.

 "To: All photographers" provides Stryker's "General Notes for pictures needed for files." Under the category, SPRING he lists, "New-plowed earth (early-morning or late-afternoon). Show 'texture.' Get the feel of 'good earth' into the picture.'" In the category, HIGHWAY, Stryker requests, "Pictures which emphasize the fact that the American highway is very often a more attractive place that the places Americans live." He asks for shots of "Horse and buggy...Back view—country road." Stryker has clearly written the story; his photographers are asked to illustrate it convincingly.

Ben Shahn, One of the few remaining inhabitants of Zinc,
 Arkansas1935, Inkjet Print. Courtesy the Library of
 Congress, Washington DC 
Hoffman, however, doesn't suggest any details, let alone the narrative to his twenty-first century crew, despite his antiquated the tone, vocabulary, and syntax. 

The missions of Stryker and Hoffman, are as different as the results obtained though. The Depression era photographers   demonstrated in the selection of work presented here an unmistakable unity of purpose and means. Notably, all of the older work is black and white and presented in 8" x 10" format. There is a visual coherence on the simplest level that enables the viewer to enjoy the sense of traveling within a unified, well-defined world. 

While it's not hard to notice that the subjects and tactics of Ben Shahn (above) and John Vachon (below) are dissimilar, my eye accepts that they could have passed one another in the act of taking the pictures they did. They could have set eyes on the same things. I accept this in part because of the inner relationships created by the uniform presentation of the works.

John Vachon, National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa, 1940, Inkjet Print, Courtesy the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
The FSA photographs appear, too, to have devised their own consistent visual rhetoric. For instance, irony is almost never deployed by the contemporary photographers. John Vachon's photo of an indigent contemplating a billboard sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers drips irony. In this show, as in The Radical Camera, optimistic consumer (and government) advertising of the '30s was often exploited to heighten the poignancy that turns documentary into social commentary. Simple techniques were commonly used too, to turn the poor into heroes or the disadvantaged into the brave. Photographers angling up into their faces from below their chins, or focus squarely on their deep, direct gazes.

Gordon Parks, Washington, D.C. Government charwoman
1942. Inkjet Print. Courtesy the Library of Congress, 
Washington DC

Farm Security Administration photographers certainly found empathy in themselves, but  they knew that they needed to produce it in their viewers. The images they produced were of the threshold of an America never before seen by most of its citizens. These were images of a foreign country that we needed not to fear but to comprehend and develop compassion for.

For today's photographers, the assignment, while superficially similar, arises in very different circumstances. For one thing, their Depression era forbears were entirely successful in exposing the existence of the hungry and ill-housed underbelly of America. Now, the poor and the victims of economic injustice have emerged in every quarter and every sphere of life. Poverty and its social consequences are ubiquitous. They have indeed become normal subjects for art—not only for journalism.

Of the FSA's original twelve photographers, most came from or remained in journalism, and many were connected for the short or long term with Life or Look magazines. Ben Shahn is remembered primarily as an artist—a painter and printmaker. Gordon Parks branched into filmmaking (he directed the original Shaft). Most of the others—John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange, Esther Busbey—remained in photojournalism and are best known for that work.

The current work in More American Photography is all presented by the courtesy not of newspapers or magazines, but of artists and their galleries. These photographers are not journalists, but fine artists. That their subjects explore the territory of social realism or document economic circumstances does not detract from their central artistic concerns. 

William E. Jones, Restaurant, Canton, Ohio, 2011. Hand coated
 pigment print. Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky 
Gallery, Los Angeles. 9 x 13.5."

Neither did these artists have to buy bus tickets to go out on assignment. Their material tended to be close to home. William E. Jones examined the abandoned storefronts of his hometown, Canton, Ohio. Roe Ethridge returned to his parents' small town home of Belle Glade, Florida (where Marion Wolcott, one of the FSA photographers, shot for the Office of War Information in the 1940s). Catherine Opie documented her Los Angeles neighborhood. This story of familiarity is the norm. For all of these artists, poverty and hard times are personal. Neighborly. Struggle is not a foreign place to which one travels, but the place we live in or next to. 

Catherine Opie, Bravo (Plumbing), 2011. 15 x 20."
Cibachrome print, Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
And unlike journalists, fine artists don't report to editors. Artists define their own content and points of view; curators make stories from the images, not before they exist—hence the vagueness of Hoffman's rhetoric compared to Stryker's blunt specificity. 

As a result of the individual-driven interpretation of mission, one gets the show we have here, the result of a variety of very particular, personal visions unified by neither size, topic, nor format. All the new work is in color, and more of it has to do with the city; there was no farm agency calling attention to rural (or any other) settings. Let this be my observation and not a criticism. It's a point about the gulf between the missions and world of the Depression and the Recession.

Sharon Lockhart,Visalia Livestock Market, Visalia, California, 2011. 49.5 x 73.5"
Chromogenic print, Courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
In the contemporary photography there is little internal editorializing, for the common point of view is straight-ahead and four-square, with few arrangements to imply heroism, pathos, or drama. Light and shadow; richness of detail; large size, disposition of large forms; saturated color—formal aspects rather than composition of the subjects carry the emotional weight. These photographs require more subtle interpretation from the viewer, for the artists don't signal what we might feel merely by a lifted chin or the placement of a figure in relationship to a closed door or the vanishing point. 

Sharon Lockhart's Visalia Livestock Market is a remarkable work: Its great size virtually places the viewer in the space that is photographed in impressive detail. It's a photograph to spend hours and days in. It strikes me as a remarkable documentation of accreted personal and cultural time, which have conspired into this quiet moment. It's not a picture we take as expose or rhetorical stand.

Katy Grannan, Untitled, Bakersfield, CA, 2011.
Archival pigment prints, Courtesy the artist and 
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
35.5 x26" 
I particularly admire works by Katy Grannan and Collier Schorr because each of their photographs suggests that an important part of the picture—and story—lies outside of the frame. In Grannan's dual portrait of the father and daughter, she employs the traditional, effective device of placing us below the pair, who are naturally ennobled by their position above us, gazing into space that we cannot see. The empty background suggests that they are looking into a great distance of time, of vision or experience. In this image I feel continuity with the goals and achievements of the FSA portraits. Poor people and hard times; grit and determination. It's a clear image in every sense, down to way the hair flying across her face imitates the effect of the wrinkles on his, and how the down on her arm contrasts with the rough texture and hair on his. I like it that there's a point of view suggested; no apologies for the rhetorical flourishes.

Schorr's portrait of a young cowboy is strengthened by its position in a context that offers an alternative reality. The young man is constrained and appears in black and white: He is limited, whatever his potential. Yet he looks like someone of an age to be both coming into his powers and questioning them at the same time. He looks up at us with a question: Is he allowed to assert his claim? His story is superimposed on a world in color, in which elderly black men stand isolated, fragmented, and bundled against the cold in ripped clothing, on vacant lots. 

What's the relationship between the emerging manhood of the white youth and the decrepit manhood of the old, black men? Schorr doesn't picture only the effect of poor conditions on an individual, but complicates the story by acknowledging how inescapably we are implicated in one another's success or failure, willingly or not.

Coliier Schorr, AMERICANS #1, 2011. 45 x 37.5."
Archival pigment ink prints, Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York

However we look at documentary photography, however, it's usually the case that one group is looking from the outside at another group and trying to present it through a lens—nobly, pathetically, with dignity—that doesn't require intimate knowledge of the subject. FSA photographers were given a script. Hoffman gave his photographers only their awareness of the historical oeuvre and his belief in their humane eyes and intentions.

I would like to see more documentary photography and film in which the subjects document themselves and so choose the attitudes and lenses through which we see them. Because opportunities for poor people (like the subjects here) to use the equipment of documentarians come only through the auspices of institutions like medicine, education, or social services, our chances of public engagement with their own points of view are few. 

I have great respect for institutions like Media Action, with the mission of enabling populations to produce their own images and voices. Media Action is currently conducting a project teaching film-making to people in Uganda. The videographers have worked before in small-town Alaska. Four films made by Alaskan schoolchildren about life in their native towns made their ways into the 2011 Anchorage International Film Festival. 

Documentary forms always bring doubt as well as information. But when we know that the photographers are from the community they are documenting, even what doubts they cause through their rhetoric will come as revelations about the subjects.
The twelve photographers of the Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration project, 1935, were: Ester Bubley, Marjory Collins, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott.

The twelve photographers chosen in 2010 by Jens Hoffman are: Walead Beshty, Larry Clark, Roe Ethridge, Katy Grannan, William E. Jones, Sharon Lockhart, Catherine Opie, Martha Rosler, Collier Schorr, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, and Hank Willis Thomas.

Visit the STARR REVIEW FACEBOOK page for a link to unusual color photographs done by the FSA photographers as part of their project. 

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