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is whether the photographs he produced for the FSA, or indeed at any other time, were truthful and/or whether they are historical documents.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

Walker Evans

Walker Evans

I think there is a difference between a “Documentary worker” and a “Documenter”. Looking at Walker Evans’ work there is a suggestion – to me – that Evans was a documenter; he looked at and photographed specific objects/things, including people, in an almost compulsive way. Most, though not all, of Evans’ photographs are undertaken with the aperture closed right down, as if in the process of recording the image in front of the lens, Evans wants to provide everything in as perfect sharpness as possible in the document. Famed for the tonality and textual qualities there is a high degree of consistency in the rendition of an Evans print. Looking through the considerable archive at the Museum of Modern Art, New York there is a lack of variety in the subject matter – there are few nudes, pictures of an infant with and without clothes, but otherwise there are very few subjects that Evans appears to have tackled – but those that he has studied have come in for a singular examination with a strong technique. For example this street arrow is one of a great many Evans took of street arrows – some turning left, some turning right, some heading straight, some bifurcating; just lots and lots of them for what purpose other than perhaps the collection of street arrows, perhaps? As an aside, whilst there are a lot of people shots I don’t get the impression from looking at them that he was a social animal; his technique was to hide from his subjects, in shaded doorways or beside buildings – he even developed a mechanism whereby he hid his camera within his coat in order to be able to take people’s pictures in subways without their knowledge.

So, if Evans was a documenter then it is for the viewer to bring the narrative to the image – to explore their reaction to an image, which in Evans’ case has been said to be “American”, perhaps quintessentially American and in particular, where he will be most remembered I suspect, in the depression as part of Strykers FSA team of photographers.

This image is quite famous and at first glance it is amusing – both man and building seem to be holding each other up. However if you view the image for a while and study the various elements in the image there are some disconcerting details. The photograph is aligned to the top of the main foreground building – it has been cropped and printed to suggest that the building, whilst apparently leaning to the left, is at least level top and bottom – it occupies that largest area in the image, greater than two thirds of the photograph is occupied by this building. The secondary subject, the man, appears to be leaning into the building almost as if he is holding it up – the position of his arms suggest that he has “hold” of the building with his hands. The building is rendered in typical Evans style, beautifully textured, superbly exposed to reveal a full range of tones and the title “Scene in the Negro Quarter, Tupelo, Mississippi, USA, 1936” specifically situates it in our mind as a building in the poorer part of this city in the South of the USA in an era when poverty and deprivation were commonplace. It isn’t though a comment on the secondary subject-the black man apparently holding the building up, as if supporting it; it is more about the inevitability of the structure’s imminent collapse.

So I see it as a metaphor; the impoverished black southern man propping the economy up with the weight of his labour and so on. However once the eye moves away from that and starts to work on some of the other detail in the photograph it becomes clear that either Evans has deliberately composed the shot slightly on the skew to position the building in the foreground as being balanced by the black man or he did so in the darkroom. The clue is in the background. The large piece or architecture – looking not dissimilar to the White House is leaning in the opposite direction and when “straightened’ places the man in a more upright stance, but the building in the foreground is now considerably more at risk of collapse – see here where I have reworked it. An altogether different metaphor in my mind.

In another well know image of a building here entitled “Negro Church, South Carolina, USA, 1936 at once seem to be a very solid structure. Composed in bright sunlight the appearance provides “big triangles, big squares, strong uprights” but as Luc Sante explains in the Phaidon 55 accompanying notes “..the black churches (that) he shot in the South that year, all of them made from available wood with available tools and without blueprints.” Luc Sante , Walker Evans, Phaidon 55 p 74. When the image is studied for a short while certain troubling details become apparent (and without Evans’ attention to process and technique we might not be able to elicit this detail) we become aware of stresses in the building. The main struts are starting to bend, their supports are cracking, the doors too are showing signs of deterioration, the surrounding buildings are being propped up, leaning over starting to delaminate from their environment. Sante envisions a “.. (a) congregation within moaning a wordless lining hymn.” I see it as an empty carcass whose life is leaching into the barren land that is as bleak as the empty sky that envelops it.