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The photographic gaze is at once intimate and removed; at once deeply personal and also impersonal, especially it seems when dealing with intensely private moments, like pain. This slim volume is part of a series, Defining Moments in American Photography and looks at the work of the photographers of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the traumatic experiences of the 1930s and the way in which both the societal and profoundly personal experiences were captured. There are two sections. The first, authored by Sara Blair, deals with documenting the Lower East Side of New York during the late 1930s, perhaps one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse concentrations of people to be found anywhere at anytime. The second, by Eric Rosenberg, examines the work of Walker Evans in particular.
The FSA was created in 1935 as part of the New Deal initiatives to combat poverty, particularly rural poverty. It was mainly under the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker, a man who had faith and vision in equal measure and was passionate about the possibilities of the New Deal, and how, in some sense it could offer America redemption. He was also driven by the notion that Americans were ignorant of each other and his project could introduce Americans to Americans, as it was put.
Between 1935 and 1944 an extraordinary group of writers and photographers were hired to document the lives of the rural poor. Walker Evans, as well as Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, was among them. When put together with other works of the age, for example Steinbeck and James Agee (who wrote the text that sat alongside the photographs of Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) it becomes clear that there was an exceptional coincidence of artistic interest, social concern and government policy that saw the Great Depression as a fundamental, pivotal moment in America’s history and needed, in some way, to be conscious that this was history. The American Dream was under the closest scrutiny. No-one had foreseen the events that unfurled, and no-one could imagine anything like it. Such disasters were surely consigned to the past. The famines of the previous century were over (although no-one in America was thinking about the USSR at this time), the war to end wars had elbowed civilization, that is to say America, into a new consciousness that would not allow its citizens to suffer in this way again. It was catastrophic on a Biblical scale, as Steinbeck’s title’s show.
The photographers were asked to focus on the social engineering programs, the poor conditions among tenant cotton farmers, and the very poor conditions among migrant farm workers and to show the way the New Deal worked directly in people's lives. The photographs were to be related to people, to the land and their interaction and mutual fate.
Sara Blair takes us into the tenements and industrial areas of the Lower East Side. She looks at the sweatshops and the soup kitchens, and the way in which people constructed meaning in their lives. Her focus is a little after the great surge of immigrations that took place in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, but it is still a mix of the tired, poor huddles masses, yearning to breathe free. This is also a meditation on history, not least because the photographs which have become iconic are the very stuff of historical documentation – they are the story.
Eric Rosenberg’s essay is quite different, but he is also specifically an art historian. His focus is the work of Walker Evans, although to do so he places Evans historically and artistically in a growing movement of social concern, and pained alienation. In particular, he picks up on the empathy that Evans seems to show for the people he photographs. He is able to give them a dignity that rises above their material standing. Even when there are no people, he shows a space where someone just seems to have stepped out for a moment; there is always an interaction between the two.
It may be difficult now to appreciate how revolutionary the FSA photography project was. There may have been other photographic or cinematic movements that had some similar aesthetics, but rural America had never seen such a thing, and perhaps has not anything like it since. It is arguable that these photographs not only changed how America saw itself, and that was one aim of Roy Stryker, but they may have changed the way in which photography looked at the world and how the world looked at photography. They are not so much concerned with the nature of the trauma, as the reaction of people to it and the effect on lives. They have an undoubted power and it is as though it is no longer the viewer whose gaze determines the relationship – the photograph seems to fix the viewer with its gaze, and it cannot be escaped. The trauma experienced by the subjects of the photographs is experienced vicariously by the viewer, and this may be their great achievement.
Although it is a slim volume it is also quite remarkable for its contextualization of the photographers of the FSA and offers very perceptive insights into the impetus and methods of documenting the period. It is to be recommended to anyone interested in social documentation, or the history of photography. An excellent contribution; moving, considered, articulate and painfully relevant.
© 2012 Mark Welch
Mark Welch PhD, British Columbia, 2012.