By Paul Hester and Teresa Byrne-Dodge
Roy Stryker: U.S.A., 1943-1950. The Standard Oil (New Jersey) Photography project, by Steven W. Plattner, with a foreward by Cornell Capa. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1983.
Out of The Forties, by Nicholas Lemann, Texas Monthly Press, Austin, 1983. $21.95 hardcover.
Every photograph is a memory, perhaps not a personal memory, but at least a suggestion of the past. When we look at a photograph, we assume that we are seeing what the photographer saw and what we would have seen if we had been there. This faith in the camera is the strength of documentary photography.
The photograph above is from Out of the Forties, and was taken by Esther Bubley in Tomball, Texas. My first response is to a particular time, based on clothes, furniture, wallpaper; certain visual clues add up, to place this picture in the appropriate decade. Since I was born in 1948, I am not remembering it from my childhood, but am comparing it with other pictures I have seen, and to movies based on similar photographs.
In the same way that those movies use props to describe the time frame, Bubley used props to create her drama. My acceptance of the documentary mode is so habitual that I didn't question the methodology until I noticed the quality of light. The bare light bulb over the table is not on, and the strong sidelighting comes from somewhere outside the picture edge. We are looking at a directed piece, lighted for the stage; a domestic tragedy in one act.
If this image is not a memory from my family, it is still a strong memory, a collective memory, and as such is a symbol for a particular time, both historically and personally. The perceived tranquility resides in the positions of the figures, their activities, the quality of light, the idyllic circumstance of an only child, the certainty of roles assigned according to sex, and the security of knowledge represented by the Encyclopedia Britannica. Beneath this domesticated scene that appears to be an intimate view inside a typical home is an elaborately constructed piece of propaganda. The concept of family, culturally formed by all of our operating myths, has been given specificity. But the ideological nature of the image is concealed by its apparent naturalness. We accept its "truth" without questioning the conditions of the lives off-stage.
(The reader is referred to "The Currency of the Photograph" by John Tagg, Thinking Photography, published by The MacMillan Press, London, for a thoughtful analysis of this topic.)
It is important to know that this image was made for the Standard Oil Company in an effort to alter their public image following charges of collaborating with a German company during World War II. It and the others in these two books were made to appear in newspapers and magazines as examples of the "little people" who made up the world's largest corporation. They were made for reproduction, and good lighting was as necessary as quotes and names. Posing was not seen as dishonest. In order to show that the Standard Oil Company existed on a human as well as corporate scale, everyday activities were pictured. The pictures show typical things that people did, not the unusual or extraordinary. They contribute to our nostalgia for a simpler time of clarity and normalcy and convince us that life was as orderly as the pictures.
Roy Stryker: U.S.A., 1943-1950 is what we have come to expect of photography books - coated stock, one or two pictures to a page, minimal captions. It is a catalogue for an exhibition organized by the International Center for Photography, has a detailed history of the project, and is organized around the individual photographers. It treats the photographs as unique, crafted images and reproduces them very well. Each image is left to stand alone, with little concern for the original context. A checklist includes negative numbers and directions for ordering prints from the Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. Out of the Forties is more in the tradition of how the pictures originally were intended to be used. Nicholas Lemann has taken photographs from the same collection (in several instances the same image) and has made a completely different book. It is organized around five small towns that were photographed by the project photographers.
Lemann returned to each town, looking for the people in the pictures and for their stories. They talk about the time we see pictured, and the changes that have occurred in their lives. We are reminded that the knowledge received from a photograph is limited and that a shift of context will alter our understanding of it.
The checklist in Roy Stryker is careful to mark those images that "were cropped differently from the photographer's original wishes due to technical flaws in the negatives.” Out of the Forties, on the other hand, doesn't hesitate to crop an image to fit a particular format or idea. On page 24 of Out of the Forties a small 2½ -inch x 4 inch picture of “Thomas Jefferson Robinson, the self-proclaimed 'cat skinner from Elk Basin', and his daughter Sally Jane sing a cowboy song at an amateur night, Powell, Wyoming, 1944." The figures are closely cropped, with little of the surrounding space included in the image. Page 52 of Roy Stryker shows the same people in a 7¼ -inch square picture standing in front of a water-stained wall decorated with hearts and the initials of lovers, captioned "Amateur radio night Wyoming, 1944." The size and the bravery of that young girl is altered significantly by the inclusion of her surroundings.
This is just one example of how cropping, caption, and context modify the original images. One book tells the story of the photographers, the other tells the story of the people in the pictures. Neither one tells "the complete story". They compliment each other in wonderful ways. In the space of their differences, we manage to slip beyond our blind faith in documentary photographs as "truth" and see them for the symbols that they are.
As Stryker said about the Farm Security Administration photographs of the previous decade, “…all this reminded me of the town where I had grown up. I would look at pictures like that and long for a time when the world was safer and more peaceful."
Photographs front "Out of the Forties," including 10-dye transfer color prints, will be on exhibition in Sewall Gallery, Rice University, January 27-March 10, 1984.)
Here are three works about journeys: one, a physical journey through the depression and across a continent, a second, more personal — the change in attitude the photographer undergoes in two decades of work, and third, a journey of time and perspective through the landscape of an artists upbringing.
Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime, essay by Robert Coles. Aperture, $40,
The recently published Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a lifetime (1982) is hardly the first retrospective on that photographer. Among the several works that have traced her career are Milton Meltzer's Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life (1978) and Karin Becker Ohm's Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition (1980). This striking collection, which boasts splendid black and white reproduction, is reproduced courtesy of the Oakland (Calif.) Museum. It's a detailed effort and includes a chronology, bibliography and source notes.
Robert Coles' introduction traces Lange's lire, beginning with her childhood in New Jersey where 7-year-old Dorothea contracted polio. A resultant limp stayed with her to the end of her life. Almost 60 years later, she commented on being "half-crippled": "It was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me. (It) formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. All those things at once. I've never gotten over it and I am aware of the force and power of it."
In fact, Lange's vibrating moral passion may well have been engendered by her own physical handicap, as well as by an early exposure to the ghetto squalor of Manhattan's Lower East Side, an area where her mother worked as a librarian and Lange attended school.
Her association with the Farm Security Administration, a government agency charged with helping impoverished farmers during the Great Depression, was largely accidental; in fact, she was originally designated a "typist" for her husband, economist Paul Taylor. Her subsequent career with the FSA and her relationship with Roy Stryker were both characterized by heated debates and letters. Yet despite these initial difficulties, her work ranks among the masterworks of modern photography.
Willard Van Dyke wrote of Lange in 1943 in Camera Craft: "She sees the final criticism of her work in the reaction to it of some person who might view it fifty years from now. It is her hope that such a person would see in her work a record of the people of her time…” Obviously Lange has passed her self-imposed test of time. Half a century later, her inexhaustible madonna-portrait, "Migrant Mother," still flows with the juice of human life.
Later in life, Lange traveled abroad, to photograph in Korea, Ireland, Egypt and Nepal. The photographs from the final decade of her life are sweetly personal and often include her family and Berkeley home.
Pictures From the New World. Photographs and text by Danny Lyon. Aperture, $17.95 softcover.
Like Lange, Danny Lyon has also traveled extensively as revealed in his two-year-old autobiography, Pictures from the New World, now in paperback. Also like Lange, he moves beyond the stance as artist-observer to become a committed participant. At one time, for example, he was a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the south. His portraiture is characterized by images candidly snatched while crossing the line separating himself and the otherness of his subject matter.
His best known photographs are those of the dispossessed: motorcycle gang members, Colombian prostitutes and street urchins, and Texas convicts. Lyon also has a reputation as a filmmaker (Llanito, Little Boy), and he was the subject of a recent exhibition/ screening at Rice's Media Center.
Most of the photographs included here are black and white; the handful of color prints are hued in rich pastels. Observers like to compare Lyon's stream-of-consciousness roamings to the work of Jack Kerouac. The frames are full, pulsing, but the viewer must assess the distortions. While the photographs are stinging, Lyon is often strangely off-hand in his text.
Perhaps it's a factor of burnout. Who could maintain this kind of fury? Lyon's subject matter has changed since the publication of this book. His most recent work reflects a rapprochement with the middle class. Like Lange, Lyon seems to have discovered satisfaction in photographing his family, even as he has steadily developed confidence in his own powers of observation.
Southern Photographs by William Christenberry, with an introduction by R. H. Cravens. Aperture, $40.
William Christenberry's journey is one of time and perception rather than geography or social viewpoint. His lyrically poetic Southern Photographs (1983) was some 20 years in the making. No trans-continental records for Christenberry; he has confined his subject to the environs of his family homestead in Hale County, Alabama.
Christenberry works in a wide range of media, but his reputation rests primarily on his color photographs, with their satisfying tension and polite distance. For more than 15 years Christenberry used a simple Brownie box camera to record his scenes, until Lee Friedlander and publisher Caldecott Chubb convinced him to try a large-format Deardorff in 1977.
Unlike Lange's and Lyon's work, there are few humans to populate Christenberry's photographs. Often the photographer seems to be on a ghostly trail of never-seen people: sale dresses hanging in a window, graves, dilapidated shacks, weather-beaten signs, Kudzu vines draped clingingly across other vegetation, like spun-glass angel hair on a Christmas tree, is another favorite subject.
Today Christenberry is one of a handful of artists devoted to Southern themes. Although this book is full of intensely colored photographs, drenched in daylight, much of Christenberry's other media reflects a darker side, including an abhorrence of and fascination with the Ku Klux Klan.
UNDERSTANDINGS: Photographs of Decatur County, Georgia, by Paul Kwilecki. Introduction by Alex Harria. Published for The Center for Documentary Photography by The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. Hardcover.
"For twenty years, Paul Kwilecki has worked with a quiet passion to photograph his home county in southwestern Georgia. His remarkable work portrays life in a small community as he sees it — sometimes intimately sometimes satirically, but always with deep understanding." (From the dustjacket).
Black & White Photography. A Basic Manual.
Second edition, revised. Henry Horenstein. Published by Utile, Brown and Company, Boston. $9.95, paper.
"An attractive book that consistently maintains just the right tone, both verbally and pictorially, that will suit it to the widest audience (and one) that will help the beginner gain quite a systematic understanding of the process of photography." From Exposure, the Journal of the Society of Photographic Education.
Half a Truth Is Better Than None. Some Unsystematic Conjectures about Art, Disorder, and American Experience, by John A. Kouwenhoven. The University of Chicago Press. $17.95, hardcover.
"Kouwenhoven compares the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris Wheel to show that the vernacular developed more uninhibitedly in America than in Europe; takes a look at some dime novels which call in question certain aproved generalizations about the American response to the technological elements of the vernacular; and in two complementary essays (Living in a Snapshot World and Photographs as Historical Documents) considers photography, "the most important visual art (if art it be) whose roots are wholly in the vernacular." (From the dustjacket).
The Gardens at Giverny Photographs by Stephen Shore. Aperture, $22.50, cloth Introduction by John Rewald, essays by Daniel Wildenstein and Gerald van der Kemp. 72 pages, 11¾” x 10",40 color photographs.
Claude Monet lived and worked for forty-three years in the hillside village of Giverny. The gardens that evolved from his design enlarged the already grand painter. In the light and open air, through every seasonal condition, Monet's reverie embraced the iris and wisteria, the water lilies and wild fields of his cultivation. Steven Shore was commissioned to document their restoration. These photographs express both the authentic revival of the gardens and the explorations of the photographer.
Charles Pratt. Photographs. Aperture. $25-00, paper.
"I have never seen anybody photographing Nature with the sensitivity and purity that Charles Pratt's photographs have. His photographs of trees and grasses and rocks have the purity of the child's vision that has not yet been corrupted or made unconfident by exposure to what is false and sterile " Lisette Model.