Unreal Nature

January 7, 2015

Enlargement of Vision

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… none of the criticism can detract, in any significant way, from the simple worth of the images.

This is from the essay ‘Photography and the Farm Security Administration‘ by Stu Cohen (1975-1995); revised and annotated by Peter Bacon Hales, (2007), found in the The Likes of Us: America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration by Stu Cohen, edited by Peter Bacon Hales (2009):

… “You are nothing but camera fodder to me,” Stryker once told his artists, a comment that was simultaneously self-deprecating, humorous, and startlingly accurate; what mattered to Stryker was not the sensibilities of his photographers but the rigor, depth, and honesty of the resulting pictures — not one at a time, either, but as a group: what everyone called “the file.”

The FSA was not, by any means, an organization greeted with legislative accolades or gratefully thanked by the newspapers, magazines, institutions, and individuals who benefited from its generosity with pictures. For some, it was an agency of propaganda for a socialist-, even communist-leaning administration; controversies concerning pictures “falsified,” notably the case of Arthur Rothstein’s portable cow’s skull and his staging of some of the more heart-wrenching pictures of dust-bowl desperation, served to inflame that opposition, and direct more general New Deal-haters to this small corner of a subagency of the Department of Agriculture. Nevertheless, passion sustained it: the Section weathered every attempt to destroy or subvert its purpose, starve it of working funds, or forbid it access to distribution of its visual messages.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Just as the war finally ended the Depression, it also finally ended that complex assembly of forces and personalities that defined the FSA. The Section was swallowed up the Office of War Information, and the very quality of propaganda Stryker and the photographers sought to transcend became not a flaw but a necessity, a goal. … [B]y mid-1942, the FSA’s photography project was essentially over. What remained, neatly cataloged and deposited with the Library of Congress, were the photographs and negatives — some 170,000 of them — probably the largest, certainly the most compellingly humane, photographic archive ever assembled.

Neither the FSA as an institution, nor the work it produced, is above criticism. Indeed, the file invites criticism, analysis, and skepticism by its very scale and the scale of its ambitions — to encapsulate, with absolute conviction and equivalent completeness, the greatest nation of its age, at a moment of profound complexity and stress. However, none of the criticism can detract, in any significant way, from the simple worth of the images.

[ … ]

… The faces seen in these photographs, by and large, reflect middle-class values as they dominated the first decades of the twentieth century in America: individual strength, perseverance, the inherent dignity of the individual as individual. The ragged poor and the relatively better-off small-town burghers are seen the same way. Look at the faces. Look with care and deliberation at the expressions. And remember, these are the faces selected by photographer and editor, those are the expressions cultivated by photographer and editor, perhaps not with the emphatic intrusion employed at times by Rothstein, but cultivated nonetheless, by expectation, by patience, by attentiveness, by trained skill with a camera,. and with a loupe and a pile of proof sheets.

“We are all the same, despite our individual adversity,” these faces seem to say. “We are strong, we are dignified, we are noble.” “We will make it, because we will persevere.” Perhaps their faith in themselves is not sufficient to overcome the immense forces, natural and economic, arrayed against them — after all, why, then, the New Deal? — but if they persevere or triumph, they will do so as individuals. This is essentially a conservative view of society and of human dignity. The society of the pictures is not a radical one in which individuals unite to pool their small strengths into a vast collective force. It is not a society in which an individual’s dignity and worth is measured by the degree to which he or she helps her fellow humans. No: the suffering is individual, and the redemption, if it occurs, will be individual as well.

This is not to say that the collection should be anything other than what it is; it is merely to recognize the position that undergirds it and gives it its consistency of look and feel.

Arthur Rothstein, Steelworkers, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, July 1938

[ … ]

… Roosevelt himself, even Stryker at his most expansive, could not have imagined that the legacy of the New Deal would be conveyed for generations in the form not of speeches or laws, nor even of buildings and communities, but of photographs.

But to examine the FSA picture file in light of the specific goals of the New Deal’s social policy is to miss the ways these photographs gained power and influence as the moved into broader and broader circles. The social welfare ethos of the New Deal was substantially deepened, and support for its underlying humanistic tenets dramatically widened, by the circulation of those pictures, during the years of the Great Depression and throughout the wartime years as well, when the FSA archive was mined again for images to lift the hearts and stiffen the resolve of a nation at war. The diffusion of its specific mandates into the broader streams of art photography and photojournalism, too, misses the ways in which those photographs, and the project itself, became increasingly imbedded in the American historical consciousness.

[line break added] Borrowed by Edward Steichen for his Cold War epic exhibition, The Family of Man, they served to warn against the dangers of nuclear brinksmanship and then, migrating via the USIA throughout the globe, they sent a sympathetic and ingratiating version of American triumphalism to citizens in far-flung nations who, even today, recall their appreciation for America in terms of those pictures. In the heated marketplace of art and art photography during the ’70s and ’80s, they provided a bracing counterfoil. Imbedded in textbooks from first grade through graduate study, not just in the United States but around the globe, they continue to represent a particular tradition of American self-definition — as a nation and a culture in which individualism could reinvent communitarianism and reinvigorate democracy. That is no small achievement in itself.

… Emerging [from looking at the FSA “file”], one blinks in the light of the present: it seems too bright, harsh, alien. But soon, there comes a realization that the present has been altered by the excursion into the past; some of this change is simply a revelation of the underpinnings and influences of the past on the present, but some is the result of your own enlargement of vision. Stryker, Lee, Shahn, Lange, all of them: seekers to change the world, they have now done their work, in changing you.




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