Friday, December 04, 2009

old cars

A book by a heroic sociologist, Arthur Raper, concerns the living conditions of poor farmers in a Georgia county in the early 1930s. Where Dorothea Lange saw social traditions as invaluable supports for a people (black and white alike) whose way of life was being threatened by an indiscriminate modernism, Raper saw technological advances as potential salvation from social and economic backwardness. She showed poor families leading fulfilling lives in a communal and mutually-supportive environment; he envisioned mechanization as a means of economic development, a means for overthrowing the exploitative power of large landowners, and a means by which the standard of living of the poorest citizens could be dramatically raised.

The two attitudes are not incompatible. Lange might well have understood the likelihood that tenant and sharecrop families would disperse to other occupations over the next couple of generations and Raper probably comprehended the valuable cohesiveness of rural give and take. But to her the immediate present — in all its natural beauty and familial contentment — was paramount and to him the destruction of a cherished culture of small-farm agriculture was less important than the elimination of inequitable and ultimately destructive social and political power structures.

To some extent you can see these contrasting nuances in Lange's images of automobiles and Raper's rhapsodic paragraphs on the release from social constraints potentially afforded by them. She showed cars as markers of social condition: cars belonged to town folk and large landowners. Most poor farmers could not afford them and the few who could make the purchase possessed rattle-trap second-hand jalopies.

Focusing his attention on the few farmers who could achieve it, Raper said car ownership brought an increase in social status. Drivers were less constrained by social customs (such as deferential hat doffing) than people on foot or in wagons. The car enabled the poor farmer to buy goods in the larger towns at prices much lower than those of the country stores. It expanded a family's opportunities for communal activities and entertainment (such as simply going to the movies). The automobile was "providing the mechanical means for a greater degree of self-direction and self-expression. . . . The feel of power, even in an old automobile, is most satisfying to a man who owns nothing, directs nothing." Raper said he suspected that "the opportunities afforded by the automobile provide a basis for a new morality for whites as well as Negroes, based upon personal standards rather than upon community mores — upon what the individual wants to do rather than what the community does not want him to do."(Source: Preface to peasantry: a tale of two black belt counties, by Arthur Franklin Raper (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1936) pp. 174-75.)

Lange's photographs show a different reality. These inmages come mostly from the tobacco farming region of North Carolina and mostly from July 1939. They tend to show the poor farm families not benefiting from car ownership but rather accepting a life-style in which cars had little prominence.

1. Lange took this set of three photos of a tenant farm family's dilapidated roadster.* It's one of only a couple occasions in which she showed car ownership by a tenant farmer.

{LC caption: Home of Negro tobacco tenant with addition of improvised garage. Wake County, North Carolina}

2. Lange noted an instance where an automobile accident revealed what appears to have been unequal justice at work.

The field notes that Lange and Hagood** took during this visit record the following information from the mother: 'one of the grandchildren lives with her whose father is in the penitentiary for ten years because a Negro child was killed in an automobile accident he had with a white man. They went to court but the white man (whose fault it was according to the mother) went free, while her son got ten years. "There's no justice; you have to wait on the lord for justice; the Lord has the power." Her son was a good boy — "He is a bible student right."'
in the front row of the white folks' church
On July 6, 1939, Lange and Margaret Jarman Hagood visited a farm being worked by a tenant family in Granville County not far from the small town of Wilton. They arrived around noon on this rainy Thursday and observed the family at work and rest. The family was headed by a man and wife and included plus seven of their own children and several adopted ones. Neither Lange nor Hagood recorded their names.

3. With this photo, Lange showed the difficulties faced by sharecroppers in coming up with cash to use the cars they owned. As the caption says, the owners couldn't afford to operate it.

{LC caption: Car belonging to Negro share tenant family. The mother said they were not running it because they did not have the money to buy tags. "I always say rations and clothes comes before riding. I can stay at home." Near Gordonton, North Carolina}

4. My last post showed this pair of young white men and their touring car. The photos seem to show that Raper's expected opportunities afforded by car ownership were to be unequally distributed. They emphasize the difference between these young wage-earning white men and the cash-poor tenant and sharecrop families who were their neighbors.

{LC caption: Young North Carolinian in old Ford. He does not farm. "Works for wages." At Tuck's filling station. Person County, North Carolina}

5. In Lange's photos, automobiles are common in towns; rare in rural areas. She showed many cars in piedmont towns, but her only shots of cars in a rural setting are of a rural church whose members come from nearby towns. These three images of cars in town come from Siler City, NC.

6. This girl in a modern roadster, sleeker and shinier than the cars shown parked on tenant farms, suggests the material comforts of town life.

7. This photo conveys the emptiness of the rural roads of packed red clay where people walked to their neighbors or the country store or they went by mule-drawn wagon.

8. Lange took one famous shot in which a car becomes an overt symbol of racial dominance; it's a farm country photo but she was not then in the piedmont region of North Carolina.

{LC caption: Plantation owner. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1936 June}

About this image Linda Gordon writes:
In one extraordinary image of a plantation owner and his croppers at a country store, Lange succeeded in replicating the power structure visually, both on the picture plane and in the three dimensions it represents. A plantation owner stands next to the porch of a Mississippi general store, dominating the image from just right of center, with one leg set aggressively on the bumper of his car, looking off to his right. Behind him are five black men, probably his share croppers, sitting and standing on the porch, in postures almost exaggeratedly unassuming, withdrawing, small, even frail by contrast with the white man. As the white man makes himself, and is made by Lange, as large as possible, so the black men are shrinking themselves. The photograph lets us see the relations of power and deference on a southern plantation. Some viewers had no trouble understanding this image as subversive. One letter to a newspaper complained that "...indicative of the agency's [FSA's] vivid pink Miss Lange's cunningly posed portrait of 'The Plantation Owner...'
-- Source: Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon
Another of Lange's biographers, Melissa A. McEuen, adds to Gordon's information. She identifies the man who is only barely visible at left as Lange's husband, Paul Taylor and she explains how the photo, without Lange's caption, would later appear in two well-meaning but misleading works:
The best-known Lange image that includes Taylor in the frame conducting an interview was one she took near Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1936. A husky plantation owner, in a cocky stance with one foot propped on his new automobile, converses with Taylor as one black man stands and four others sit quietly in the background. Various editors cropped Taylor out of the picture for their publication purposes, even though the original negative shows him prominently. When Archibald MacLeish used the photo in his 1938 publication, Land of the Free, he further cut the picture, leaving out the African Americans. The plantation owner's image illustrated Macleish's poetry, which included the words "freedom," "American," and "pioneers." The irony of Macleish's verbal message placed beside the original photograph would have been too overwhelming for the Jim Crow South, so MacLeish purposely avoided the potentially explosive combination. Three years later, Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskarn used the photograph in Twelve Million Black Voices as a parallel text on the same page with a definition of the word "Negro," which does not include the word "freedom," Wright exposes the socially constructed weight of the term "Negro" by declaring it "a psychological island" sustained by "a fiat which artificially and arbitrarily defines, regulates, and limits in scope of meaning the vital contours of our lives, and the lives of our children and our children's children." His words more aptly reflect the conditions represented in the original photograph, but the departure from reality documentary texts allowed can be seen in both books. Since Lange's picture belonged to the federal government, which had sole control over its use and distribution, her thorough captions could be changed, deleted, or ignored altogether. But by altering Lange's word stories that accompanied her photographs, one compromised the photographer's original intention, which was to create "documents that were both visual and verbal." As a thirties documentarian, Lange depended upon words and had developed such keen interviewing skills that "her conversations with the people she photographed and her understanding of their way of life were as much a part of the print she achieved as the camera or the film." When she felt that her aesthetic sense was being challenged, Lange fought back.
-- Source: Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars, by Melissa A. McEuen (University Press of Kentucky, 2004) pp. 114-115



* All photos come from the Farm Security Administration collection of the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division. The captions come from Lange's notes. Click to view full size. Most images are low-resolution scans and thus will appear somewhat fuzzy at full size.

** The sociologist, Margaret Jarman Hagood, was assigned to work with Lange during her exploration of the small tobacco farms of North Carolina in July 1939. It's interesting that both Hagood and Raper worked under Howard W. Odum, head of the University of North Carolina's Institute for Research in Social Science, although he preceded her by a decade and their paths may not have crossed.

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