Sunday, October 25, 2009

phtographic integrity

Error Morris has produced the final section in his set of posts on Depression-era images by Farm Security Administration photographers: The End of the World. It's number 7 in the series The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock. In it he again interviews an expert about controversies over supposed breaches of documentary realism. He says that given the number of decisions that every photographer must make, there's hardly any image that can achieve the sort of purity that critics demand. The questions to ask of photo-journalism are, or should be, rather whether a photographer's work is accurate than whether it is entirely free of manipulation and whether it "portrays a larger reality" rather than whether it is naïvely real. A photo can be just as authentic for being posed as it can for being entirely unmediated. Perhaps — given the aesthetic content of authenticity — it can be even more so.

He says that the FSA photographers, Rothstein, Lange and Evans, "have been accused of posing their photographs, in short, of manipulating them to some end. And yet all photographs are posed. There is no such thing as pure documentary photography."

This conclusion is supported by an extended interview with their FSA boss: Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker, 1963-1965 (interviews with Roy Stryker, conducted by Richard Doud at the artist's home in Montrose Colorado, 1963 October 17, 1964 June 13, and 1965 January 23). In them Stryker uses the word discernment to help us understand the role of the photographer in producing an image that is true to its subject, meaningful, and visually compelling. He says Walker Evans had a "discerning eye" and that another FSA employee, Esther Bubley, had both discernment and wonderful technique: "people saw themselves in her photos and liked what they saw." Using Bubley to explain how the FSA photographers achieved their marvelous results without deceitful manipulation, he said they possessed extreme competence in handling their cameras, they could be unobtrusive without concealing the fact that they were taking shots; they could work as collaborators with the people who appear in their photos to achieve results that were deeply satisfying.

Asked whether great photos are accidental, that is a matter of luck, Stryker says there's more to it than that:
Most great pictures are the product of -- oh, no, listen -- the accidental factor is very large, very large. And I don't want to -- please, don't misunderstand me, there are very very brilliant, able photographers who know exactly what they want to do. They have the accidental factor of being there at the right time to get it but they know what they're doing. A competent man knows what he's doing. On the other thing, you see, if you were to have the time and go through the new files, and you take them collectively and go through them, you'd come out with a fantastic exhibit. Because the old news photographer always went to the dogfight, and the dogfight was right in front of him. He pointed the camera and by God, there it was. That was an "accident." I don't want to underrate, I don't want to take anything away from that man. He had the courage to go there, he had the courage to sense it. In a certain strike picture, a bunch of guys standing with their backs to the cameraman. The windows are broken -- and they've got lead pipes and clubs in their hands and they're hidden away, all you see is their backs. It was quite a picture. The man knew what he was doing. He "happened" to get there, he saw it. I don't know the photographer, I'd like to know how well he planned in adFvance but I think he saw and he had to work fast. Cartier-Bresson is terrific. He sees so fast, and gets his camera work so fast. He's unusual. Very little is accidental. He's there. That's an accident. He had to be there at the right time -- that is the great accident factor: You're there. Now quite different from that: Walker Evans' pictures are quite different. They're not the accident, he plans them, he walks around, he looks, and all of a sudden -- his is a composed job. He takes time. Very few of his -- his are like Ben Shahn's are not. Ben Shahn [another FSA photographer] is there at the moment, he helps, perhaps, to set up some by his conversation, but he sees the faces, he sees the juxtaposition of faces; a second later it's too late. He had to hit it right. Some of that is accident, but he knows what he's after, he sees -- you see, he sees a whole concept there. Walker walks around and all of a sudden sees -- coming back to my old picture -- the tombstone in the cemetery, the street, the houses. It's an interesting picture, because you know that he planned it. That's not "composed" in the sense that that word is so badly used at times, but he hunts till he finds the right viewpoint, the right place to stand. But he's telling you a sort of social situation. And the woman wanted that picture -- she wanted it for a different purpose but she sensed the importance of the picture.
On the controversies surrounding the moving of objects before photographing them, Stryker tells the interviewer:
There's not too much to say. ... It wasn't dishonesty at all ... It was a political situation. Newspapers picked it up because we were then going over into a political controversy. Which is a perfectly legitimate, worth-while thing. Thank God that's what democracy is -- a difference of opinion. The result was, there was a stampede, everybody take up the thing and damn us for it. I don't think they even looked carefully. In the end, I think they made something more out of it; it wasn't that important.

At about the same time Stryker did his oral history, two photographers debated the work of the FSA photographers. One of them said "What the FSA photographers did, and I knew most of them, was to acquaint themselves with people and gain their confidence in order to show them as they really lived. This takes time." (source: Correspondence: John G. Morris - John Mraz, November 2002-March 2003.)

In a profile of Stryker by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh a few years back, Stryker's method is described:
Even though he did not concern himself with the mechanics of wielding a camera, Stryker developed into a great teacher who could inspire those who came to work for him. Before sending his photographers out into the field, Stryker made sure they were well-informed about their assigned area, its people, economy and even its politics. He often gave his photographers books to read and would encourage them to look at assignments in new and different ways. Stryker felt that an educated, sensitive photographer would produce images that "would mirror both his understanding and his compassion."
-- Source: The Photographers: Roy E. Stryker

To close, here are some highly-regarded Depression-era photos by FSA photographers in the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division.

{Bud Fields and his family...Alabama. 1935 or 1936, Walker Evans}

{Floyd Burroughs...Hale County, Alabama. 1935 or 1936, Walker Evans}

{Farmer and sons...dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma. 1936, Arthur Rothstein}

{Destitute pea pickers in California... (Often referred to as "Migrant Mother"). 1936, Dorothea Lange}

{Dust storm damage. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936 Apr. Arthur Rothstein}

{Dust is too much for this farmer's son in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. 1936 Apr. Arthur Rothstein}

{The bleached skull of a steer on the dry sun-baked earth of the South Dakota Badlands, 1936 May.}

{Washstand in the dog run...Hale County, Alabama. 1935 or 1936, Walker Evans}

{Toward Los Angeles, California. 1937, Dorothea Lange}

{Houses, Atlanta, Georgia. 1936, Walker Evans}

{Roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama. 1936, Walker Evans}

No comments: