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is whether the photographs he produced for the FSA, or indeed at any other time, were truthful and/or whether they are historical documents.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?