Photography and Truth

“I finish with the observation that our view of the past is created by photographs made by people with a clear bias on how they want their subject to be seen.  Walker Evans is famous for recording the poverty of 1930’s rural America, however, the view he left us has as much to do with his personal stance as the actuality of what was recorded.  The subject of his most iconic image,  Allie Mae Burroughs, stated quite publicly that he constructed these images of poverty, moving things around the house, changing how people were clothed.   These are great photographs, but they are not a realistic reportage on the events or conditions of the time.  They are not history, they are pictures” –

The quote above comes from fellow student Shaun Clarke’s Social Documentary blog Assignment Two – Truth and like all students of photography, especially those who have an interest in veracity, I was struck by this concluding paragraph in his essay regarding truth. And in particular the last two clauses in the ultimate sentence. “They are not history, they are pictures”

The statement, “they are pictures” is of course indisputable and, as there are no references to other photographers in the paragraph, then it is the pictures of Walker Evans that are, I suspect, the ones that Clarke is referring to. But what are they if not history? These photographs that were, in the main, constructed to deliver a narrative – at once dictated by Ron Emerson Stryker who headed the “Information Division” of the “Farm Security Administration” (FSA) and, of course, by the photographers own perspective. If we leave Walker Evans’ infamous stubborn streak aside what we are left to consider is whether the photographs he produced for the FSA, or indeed at any other time, were truthful and/or whether they are historical documents.

Evans was nothing if not prolific, variously gifted with the title of ‘the most complete documentary photographer of all time’ – how would one test that theory? – his catalogue of images is large and perhaps only eclipsed by the likes of Gary Winogrand in terms of volume. Evans’ politics aren’t at question here; though there isn’t much to read anywhere about Evans’ political thinking that i’ve found, unlike his accomplice James Agee who did have connections with the left. It would seem that Evans took the brief from Stryker, and mostly adapted it to enable him to photograph what he himself wanted to photograph – much to almost everyone’s frustration. This tendency to write his own brief, about the conditions that beset him in the depression hit states of the South, about how these sharecroppers lived – where he too lived amongst them – enabled him to understand their lives to a greater extent, than maybe Lange, a much more committed photographer, someone who avowedly wanted to “make a difference” and did expressly lean to the politics of the left. Evans may have rearranged the furniture and the landscape – something I write about in the photograph scene in the Negro Quarter, Tupelo, Mississippi, USA, 1936 one of his more famous photographs – where he seems, not content with merely rearranging the landscape, he appears to have rearranged physics to make his point.

The moments that Evans depicts are instants in time – each like a Cartier-Bresson moment – captured explicitly as a record that projects into the viewer an impression of the life being lived beyond the ken of the reader. It is of course part of Stryker’s role to edit these images for the consumption of the world; these images were created under the auspices of the FSA (and previously the Resettlement Administration), but for what purpose? Isn’t there an Orwellian undercurrent in the term Farm Security Administration? Why would the Government of the United States of America want to document the plight of bankrupt tenant farmers, during the depression years of the 1930’s, when the plight of the dustbowl exacerbated the ruination of the stock market? Why, when the communist state of Russia was just burgeoning would it want to direct the light of documentary photographers and writers to this area if it didn’t want to “document” the sorry state of affairs? It is an odd construct to consider.

Constructions, be they visual, or literary, for example that of  Tom Joad in the “Grapes of Wrath” serve to deliver “a” truth and in “a” context that make available a truth that hadn’t really been available beforehand. The “pleb’s” had only a politic, a truth, that had been sourced through a media that wouldn’t have allowed the proletariat anything other than a view that cozied up to the view of those that owned the media. The documentary photographer in that most democratic of mediums enabled the dissemination of, at least one person’s truth, to the masses, utlising the market which, whilst it hadn’t reached the sophistication that we know today all responded to market pressure. Lange’s “Migrant Mother” whilst it succeeded in providing 20,000lbs of food-aid to the starving “Oakies” within two weeks of publication in a San Franciso paper it also sold lots of newsprint as well for the owners of the journal.

So they are pictures and not history? No, I think they enable a veracity that provides the historian with an armoury of documentation that would have been easier to deny without them. The truth of Evans’ images can be measured in the tonal structure of his photographs – black and white with a lot of grey in the middle. And it is the mid-tones that provide the narrative, the singular fact of black or white will deliver nothing we already knew. It was the depression. These people were living on the edge of starvation and a lot died there. Whether Evans , and I would suggest all the FSA cadre of photographers, manipulated the view in the lens to develop a clearer message isn’t the point for me. The point is about enabling the message to get out there and in a narrative that Steinbeck would also echo. It was a construct to begin with. The tenant farmers stood no chance against the greed of the banks and financial institutions who begat the whole sorry state of affairs in the first place. If Lange asked Florence Owens to lift her arm to her face and asked that her children turn away from the camera – then it is a construct, but it didn’t alter the fact that Owens was “dirt-poor”, was mal-nourished and homeless and dependent on charity to get through. These pictures were “a” truth and one that needed to be told. The truth of how the banks and the financial sector contrived to create the scenario isn’t one that gets an airing very often if at all ever – where’s the truth in that?


the on-going moment, Geoff Dyer

I’m still unsure where I got the reference to get a copy of this book, in the flurry of new course purchasing that my birthday allocation of Amazon vouchers provided me, this tome came as a forgotten order – like a present used to be, not from a list of “what would you like for Christmas – c’mon we need a list?”. This book had somehow entered the room under the radar and all the more welcome for it being so. (Maybe the reference to it is in one of my log-books that are currently residing in Barnsley in case they needed to provide back-up on the assessment for People and Place – just a guess).

I knew Geoff Dyer had written on John Berger – (Ways of Seeing is next on the current Everest (never-rest) pile of books to be consumed) and he is referenced in the course reader Photography: A Critical Introduction- Wells, Routledge p18/19; so he has some credentials in this visual world I am engrossing myself in. A quick glance through the book as I received suggested that it might indeed be quite pertinent – lots of photographs by Dorothea Lange, by Walker Evans, Atget, Strand, DeCarava, Smith, Winogrand… – over 40 and whilst not a complete who’s who of, essentially twentieth century photography, it covers a strong selection.

There is only one chapter – just over 250 pages – that is cleverly constructed in order to  depict how a subject – a hat, a stairway, a barber shop, a park bench and many more subjects have been approached by many photographers and how that ‘approachment’ has been informed and developed by successive artists.

The two towering personalities in the book are, for different reasons, Steiglitz and Evans. Steiglitz is shown to be at once the early promoter of the medium as an art form – solidly behind some of the great American photographers of the early to mid twentieth century – and how, through his personality he reduced his standing as a photographer, as a leader and as, maybe, a human being. Evans though, in this book mainly about documentary photography, sits as a figure that many of the photogrphers reference in their work. How it was that Evans seemed to have taken the shot that these other photographers felt compelled to capture their interpretation of. Evans is the first photographer Dyer mentions and he is there almost at the end on page 246. How it was the Evans guided Frank but dismissed Weston, gave impetus to Winogrand and left Ansel Adams where Bresson had, in the wilderness.

Dyer presents this taxonomic journey through what is almost exclusively American photography with a great sense of the artistry of the image. How it appears very clearly to him that these photographs were taken for a purpose, they each had a meaning – even Winogrand’s meaning which was to take the photograph and not worry about the end result..’It would seem Swarkowski observes with a mixture of wonder and bafflement, “that in his (Winogrand’s) Los Angeles years he made more than a third of a million exposures that he never even looked at”’. P 242

Dyer’s reading of these photographs comes aligned with literary references that I found enlightening and appropriate – from Wordsworth to Whitman; some of them used by the photographers themselves, others by Dyer to explore the meaning of the images he describes. Overall I found this a compelling book, it took the photograph as a document and sought to read it aloud in a way that made sense, from a writer’s perspective I had only one complaint about it and it was to do with language. Steiglitz’s work and influence was rightly discussed at length in association with Strand and of course with O’Keefe. Dyer seems to focus a lot on the relationship Steiglitz had with O’Keefe, how his art faltered and how he centrered his focus on O’Keefe’s body (and that of clouds later, but enough of that already). Steiglitz was infatuated with her body, she was beautiful and a lot younger than he. Steiglitz photographed all her body and the shots that stayed around her lower abdomen, it seems, had Dyer grasping for vernacular. The shot ‘Georgia O’Keefe – Torso 1918-19’ where Steiglitz  posed O’Keefe with her legs parted had Dyer asking why we couldn’t see more of her pussy! Her what? “ (her ‘pussy’) printed like the earlier negative (similar image) so that there is an impenetrable black triangle between her legs.” P79. What’s the problem with discussing the photograph as printed by the photographer, like for example when he talks of Evans’ Barn, Nova Scotia, 1971 “in the penultimate picture of the sequence the framing is tighter still, just the open door and the interior, as black as the screens in Sugimoto’s pictures…”. P220. Dyer doesn’t ask for a bit of dodging to bring out the detail here, so why all of a sudden does he want to do it between O’Keefe’s legs? And what is the nomenclature ‘pussy’ all about? What’s wrong with vagina, vulva?? Discuss the picture the artist has created, not one that you might want to have been created – I think this may say more about Dyer than Stieglitz and is a little disappointing in an otherwise excellent book.

That rant apart, I thoroughly recommend this book, the course it the reader takes, through essentially American photographic art history, from the beginning of the twentieth century up until the sixties or thereabouts, and with perhaps the one exception, it is both engaging and informative and should perhaps be on the critical reading list – along with ALL(?) the others.

Dorothea Lange – “Migrant Mother”

Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange

This photograph, now seen as one of one the defining images of the depression era of 1930’s America, so much so that the US postal service used it on a stamp with the words “America survives the depression”. The image has been freely available without restriction from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) a US government body since Dorothea Lange exposed and developed the image.

Whatever Lange’s motivation for taking the picture she knew there wasn’t going to be any financial gain; neither she nor her subject, Florence Thompson were ever to get a nickel from the seemingly never ending renditions of the image and that is now one of the most recognised images ever created.

Whilst I don’t doubt the effectiveness of this image I wonder how it has pervaded our consciousness and still does three quarters of a century later. How it is that an image of a woman and three children, with no contextual references to speak of, pitches the viewer to the dust bowl, to the plight of thousands of economic migrants and to coalesce the plight of a nation from a series of monotonic pictures.

If I look at the photograph – this is taken from the USA government site The Library of Congress  – I can see the full negative – implying that what I am “seeing” is indeed the full truth of the capture; nothing has been edited. So what is in the frame was meant to be in the frame either by design or serendipity.

If I extract the details from the image, I see: A mature woman, two children whose heads are turned away from the camera, their heads are close to the adult, suggesting either a familial connection or at least someone who is a trusted position – there is a strong physical relationship between the infants and the adult. I see the look of the adult woman away to the left of the camera lens and to her right – her expression isn’t blank, in that to me she isn’t thoughtless at the moment of capture, rather she seems to be concerned about something – but maybe I am “seeing” this because of what I know; nevertheless her expression gives me that impression. A little while later I notice the babe in arms, asleep, content, though maybe a little grubby? Looking further into the other subjects they are also a little grubby around the edges. The woman has dirty fingernails, the child on our right has hands that are a little more than grubby and both this child’s clothing and that of the woman are a trifle ragged. The woman is not made up in anyway; her hair is a little unkempt. The haircuts of the two children haven’t been done by an expert barber – more likely they have had a “basin-cut”! The woman is seated which allows the children’s heads to be at the same level as hers. There is some cloth to their left, which quite conceivably might be a curtain. So I might presume that given all these clues that this might be a family – without a father present, at least in the picture – who are probably poor and probably working class. And that is about all I can derive from this photograph there being no other contextual information – we know from other photographs in the series that the blurry upright on the right of the photograph is a pole that is holding the canvass up, but this blurring makes it highly unlikely that the viewer would guess that it is a rough cut pole, or, that it is canvass that surrounds the subjects – assuming that the subjects are indeed the people, which would be hard to argue against given the area they command inside the frame.

Without some other context, some other narrative supporting material this photograph might not be able to deliver the impact it certainly has for generations since it was taken. If I had seen the other image then I would have had much more contextual information, the canvass as a tent, the rough cut poles supporting the canvass – I don’t see the rebate in the negative, so maybe I don’t fully believe the image, but we see the subjects outside, in the elements. I can see the suitcase – a signifying their life “on the road”. A rocking chair, which doesn’t match with a holiday, so it’s presence suggests that it is part of their belongings that they have carried with them – suggesting that they have all their belongings with them – or is that fanciful at this stage? The baby is clearly attached to the mother’s breast, though we can’t see if the baby is suckling, but it isn’t a fanciful notion to believe that that is happening. They look poor, they might even look homeless, they have context that suggests a situation that places them in a place that the iconic image doesn’t, yet it is “The Migrant Mother” image that transports the viewer to the “Dust Bowl’, “Depression”, desperation and which is a polemical image in the conversation about politics/commerce/discrimination, let alone the imagery around motherhood which is a more easily obtained narrative.

Is it therefore the way by which the photograph came into the public consciousness? Lange submitted the photograph to a newspaper soon afterwards and food-aid was sent as a direct result of its reproduction. The title, which originally about frozen pea pickers before it’s now iconic title which tears into the comprehension of need, that a mother, posed (whether intentionally or not) with three children, two of whom seem so ashamed of their plight – or is it that the “mother” tells them to turn away? And a baby, a slightly grimy baby, with dirt being something we know as something we should keep away from babies for fear of infection of contamination.

“Migrant Mother” tells the viewer of a woman with her young and helpless family, not engaging with the viewer either for fear of shame or to look forward, to hope for a better place. The woman’s arm, upturned and in a pose of contemplation, suggests to the viewer that she is wondering not only about her future, but also of her children – we know that she is their mother because the title tells us.

The image didn’t come without narrative, exposed on February 16th it entered the world amidst a cacophony amplified by the kind of headlines such as “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squaller.” San Francisco News (March 10, 1936) – source The Library of Congress – And “What Does the ‘New Deal’ Mean to This Mother and Her Children?” San Francisco News (March 11, 1936). – ibid

Maybe it was an image that was completely of its time, an image that captured a moment that moved the public’s mood, or, perhaps more specifically the political mood that was wondering about the effect of socialism, the spread of communism and whether the people of the world’s largest market economy was able to deliver salvation to it’s own people and that the momentum behind the image gained was as a result of the USA Government seeking to gain the initiative. In just over a decade later we had Mcarthy entering the Government of the USA a few years later the House un-American Activities Committee. I wonder what The Senator from Wisconsin made of this image?

Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother

Sonnet 35

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:

Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,

Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,

And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.

All men make faults, and even I in this,

Authorizing thy trespass with compare,

Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,

Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;

For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense –

Thy adverse party is thy advocate –

And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence.

Such civil war is in my love and hate

That I an accessary needs must be

To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

The opening lines of Michael Symmons Roberts’ radio play Migrant Mother which dramatises the events that lead up to Dorothea Lange’s photograph famously known as “Migrant Mother” – though it had other names. Symmons Roberts allows the character Lange to suggest her understanding of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 35 as about “..the end justifying the means..” and therefore by inference the fateful photograph itself, though the play’s end has a denouement that has the two women Lange and Thompson as anything but adverseries. A synopsis of the play can be found here:

There are probably as many myths about this picture as there are differing prints – did Florence’s partner sell the tyres? Had they just travelled in from Oklahoma or from Los Angeles? Was the image of the Madonna in Lange’s mind when she composed the final shot? Was “it” the final shot? What is not in doubt is the reputation of the image whose impact was immediate with 20,000lb of food aid being distributed within a matter of days of the publication of the image in a San Francisco newspaper; it’s use on a US Postage stamp depicting the era in the history of the USA and forming the basis of many artworks used to depict maternal concern, Wells – Photography: A critical Introduction p48. A short Youtube video with Lange describing how the photograph came about is here; but perhaps more interesting is this recording of Florence Thompson’s own account, of her life and the taking of the picture – here: I found that backing track to the Lange video slightly mawkish. Lange states that she made 6 exposures working closer and closer, but we only get to see five and those that we do see are, in the course reader, not in the right order i.e. first taken to last taken – we are therefore, as readers, already on the end of an editing process – Wells – Photography: A critical Introduction p38 & p41.

Perhaps because of the ubiquity of the image, perhaps because this image has entered the subconscious of the mind in western society that I am a little confused as regards the provenance – though not about it’s impact. How I question both Lange’s account as well as the dramatisation mentioned above as I have no doubt that narrative has been romanticised over the decades since it was first reproduced. I am in doubt however about it’s effectiveness as an image. If Thompson was posed, then well done Lange; if it did prick the public consciousness of the Government agencies and charity workers in depression hit America, then well done as so few images have had the power to change anything in this world, and this one may have.

Perhaps, or probably, because Symmons Roberts is a poet I was particularly struck by how he used rhythmic prose and song in the radio play. The use of it was most powerful when he dramatised Lange cataloguing the plates. I had hoped to be able to add some audio, but either I can’t or I just haven’t worked out how to do it, so in the absence of audio here is the text that was delivered in the play when she spoke of the now famous image. Sound edit could be here:

Feb’ 16. California. Plate 21.

Rag tent. Migrant Mother of 5

Dragging round people, tired of the road.

Fighting to keep her children alive

tired of the struggle, bearing her load.

Home maker, comforter. Keeper of cope.

How does this woman have spirit to hope?

how does this woman have spirit to hope?

Early Social Documentary

I’ve held back from starting the coursework whilst attempting to collate the previous module’s work for assessment, that’s done now. I have looked at the course notes a few times and after wandering around the various assignments I have tried to stay in Assignment One – “Social Documentary”. And I was interested to see various coincidences/references to previous work in the course

It was a curious coincidence that one of the research suggestions was a Youtube “Masters of Photography” video entitled Alfred Steiglitz: The Eloquent Eye (1999) . I say coincidence as I had just recently recorded a PBS broadcast of another “Master of Photography” film on Ansel Adams.

It was Steiglitz of course who provide one of Adams’ first one man shows at the “Place”  in New York and the key motivation that Steiglitz provided Adams is another coincidence here. The film on Adams didn’t change my view of him; clearly still a seminal figure in the development of the medium of photography in the early to mid twentieth century, a campaigner for the environment and, when other photographers saw the need to document the plight of the people during the recession, Adams decided to continue photographing the wilderness. Whereas Steiglitz will be remembered for not only his photography, but also for the work in nurturing some key painters and photographers as well as being the first to bring Picasso in a one man show to America. He saw the need to bring credibility and respect for photography as a medium and worked very to do so, and to a large extent he helped form the notion that a photograph could be a work of art.

And then there were the references to some of the pioneers of photography, perhaps more specifically documentary photography and I remembered a debate I had on the WeAreOca site soon after I enrolled see here Reading through the thread again after this time I think the arguments still hold well, from both sides – though I still hold that Fenton still viewed a truth not available to the masses, but then I’m still not sure he was all that interested in them. Both Brady (also mentioned in the early references in the course) and Fenton were acknowledged “shapers” of the landscape, moving the scenery to elicit a stronger narrative pull for the viewer. Only a few months ago I would still have held strong views about the photographers need to record and not to interfere; I now see that as naïve. Naïve in the sense that even a different perspective of the same scene can draw a different response, and to ensure, as best as the photographer can, to communicate either a strong editorial comment or, to leave the viewer in a state of indeterminacy – by design, is now something I feel as quite important. I have written about Fenton here also

And finally there is the mention of another iconic image, that of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. Radio 3 had a dramatisation of the taking of this image – the programme is no longer available on download but I have recorded and will enjoy listening to it again.

No doubt these familiar names will surface again.