Unreal Nature

December 24, 2014

Photographic Territory

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… It opened to them new photographic territory that touched on the most banal aspects of everyday life, “infra” or “micro” subjects …

This is from the essay ‘The FSA‘s Documentary Style: From Reportage to Vision’ by Gilles Mora found in FSA: The American Vision (2006):

… The period’s approach to documentary photography can be boiled down to three general tendencies: the nascent photojournalism featured in mass-market magazines such as Fortune (1930), Life (1936), and Look (1937), which consisted of “picture stories” (illustrated text with obvious editorial, narrative, or commercial agendas); the socially useful “photodocument,” in the great reformist tradition of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, which the New York Photo League, particularly under the guidance of Sid Grossman and Aaron Siskind, devoted considerable pedagogic efforts to establishing; and, beginning in the early 1930s and championed by the critic Lincoln Kirsten, a new aesthetic current that Walker Evans eventually named the “documentary style.”

[line break added to make this easier to read online] (Kirstein made particular use of Berenice Abbot’s work as well as Walker Evans’s in advocating for this style. Evans’s 1938 MoMA retrospective, “American Photographs,” and its exhibition catalogue, with a preface by Kirstein, served as manifestos for this school of thought.) The FSA photographers found themselves (without always knowing it) at the intersection of those three distinct approaches, which shared little more than the use of photography’s inherent qualities to bear witness to reality. They would submit to the ambiguities and enjoy the advantages of each.

… It’s important to keep in mind all those distinctions to appreciate the FSA photographers’ complex explicative work, which was far removed from the era’s superficial and frequently brutal photojournalism. Some fifteen years would pass before the photojournalist W. Eugene Smith would confer on his profession a richer and more profound status by perfecting the photo essay as an honest tool for analyzing reality. For the FSA photographers, in the meantime, the concept of syntactic construction crucial to Smith’s form of photo essay was totally foreign. The Library of Congress’s FSA archive contains only three collections of photographs conceived and designed by photographers themselves, the albums of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Jack Delano.

Rothstein_DustStorm
Arthur Rothstein‘s iconic FSA photo of a dust storm [image from Wikipedia]

… “I am a photographer hired by a democratic government to take pictures of its land and its people. The idea is to show New York to Texans, and Texas to New Yorkers.” [Russell Lee]

For most of the FSA photographers, that didactic dimension surpassed any aesthetic or political impulse. It opened to them new photographic territory that touched on the most banal aspects of everyday life, “infra” or “micro” subjects unknown to a field that had been dominated throughout the 1920s by the superficiality of fashion and commercial photography, exemplified by Edward Steichen’s work.

To be continued …

-Julie

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