Saturday, October 31, 2009

FSA cameras

Walker Evans made sense when he said that the skill of a photographer is shown not so much in technical knowledge as in artistic vision. He knew how to use his equipment but guarded himself against becoming either a journalistic shot-grabber or a within-four-walls studio professional. As he said: "I've always been interested in cameras. I'm even interested — well, I was interested a little bit too much even in the technique of photography. It's a fascinating thing. But it hasn't much to do with art and an artist had better stay away from it, not get absorbed in it. It's too absorbing... You can do all kinds of tricks. It's just better not to. I am after mastery of what I want to do; that is, I want to be able to do what I want to do, and do it well" (quote source is here).

Another FSA photographer, Ben Shahn, did not even attempt to gain technical competence. He took up a camera out of dissatisfaction with the quick sketches he would make of street scenes. He talked his way into a contract to do some photography for FSA and got his first and only lesson in camera work from Walker Evans. Here's how he described the instruction:
One day when he was going off to the South Seas and I was helping him into his taxi, I said, "Walker, remember your promise to show me how to photograph?" He says, "Well, it's very easy, Ben. F9 on the sunny side of the street, F4.5 on the shady side of the street. For a twentieth of a second hold your camera steady," and that was all.
-- (quote source is here)
The two — Evans and Shahn — marked the extremes of technical knowledge and ignorance among FSA photographers. Most were skillful without having Evans' extensive experience. Most had enough versatility to work with more than one type of camera, but no others had his ability to develop, print, and enlarge photos as well as take them.

They all doubtless agreed with him that the quality of their finished work was less dependent on their equipment than on their ability to work well with human subjects, to select and frame the scenes they shot, to visualize in two dimensions what lay before them in three dimensions, to see the patterns of light and dark, and other matters having less to do with photographic technology than with artistic insight.

It's interesting, all the same, to see what cameras the FSA photographers used and to think about the ways their equipment affected the images they took.

Favorite Cameras of Walker Evans

Evans and Shahn show extremes in their camera preferences. Shahn used a small 35mm one with a retracting lens while Evans, who used a variety of cameras, preferred an enormous 8 x 10 view camera like this:


These cameras were bulky, heavy, slow to set up and use. They couldn't be used without the support of a large tripod. The photographer loaded film into them one sheet at a time and needed to keep handy big boxes of light-tight film holders for unexposed and exposed negatives.

These cameras were also extremely flexible. Both the camera itself and the lens plate could be moved independently.1 The photographer could view the full size image on cut glass screen before taking a shot, permitting extreme accuracy in both composition and focus.2

The huge size of the negative allowed the photographer to make large prints of extremely high quality.3

Outside the studio, the bulkiness of the 8 x 10 view camera made it impractical for any but static subjects (such as buildings and landscapes). It was not well suited for street scenes and wholly unsuited for candid and action shots. In using this camera to make images of human subjects in urban environments, Evans showed an extraordinary photographic skill.

{Walker Evans using his 8 x 10 view camera; source:}4

Walker Evans sometimes used smaller cameras than the 8 x 10 view camera. This photo shows him with what looks like a Plaubel Makina which could be used with 3¼ x5½ inch (6cm x 9cm) film sheets or 120 roll film.


Here is a Plaubel Makina:
{Plaubel Makina; source:}

Favorite Cameras of Arthur Rothstein and Jack Delano

Other FSA photographers liked to use a 4 x 5 press type camera. This photo shows Arthur Rothstein with one of these; it does not look like the standard press Graflex.

{source: Library of Congress}

Jack Delano used a standard press Speed Graphic Graflex like this one from the early 1930s:


Favorite Cameras of Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange also liked the 4 x 5. She used the press Graflex and the Graflex Series D reflex model. Here she is with the press model:


This shot shows her with the reflex:

{source: Library of Congress}

{Here is a crop detail showing the reflex camera}

This is the Graflex Series D 4 x 5 reflex:

{source: luminous-landscape}

Favorite Cameras of Esther Bubley

Esther Bubley used smaller cameras than the previous three of her FSA peers. Her camera of choice was usually a Rolleiflex 2¼ x 2¼ (or 6cm. x 6cm.). These photos show her with this double-lens reflex camera:


{source: Library of Congress}

{Detail of Bubley with Rolleiflex; source: Library of Congress}

This is a camera model close to the one she used:


The cameras used by the men encouraged eye-level use and most of their photos are taken at this level. In contrast the reflex cameras used by Lange and Bubley made it easier for them to make waist-level shots. For this reason you see quite a few low-level photos from them. Notice that the photo of Bubley on the car roof shows two other cameras, both of them 35mm compact models. Virtually all the FSA photographers carried at least one 35mm camera along with them whatever their format preference. Bubley's pair look like they might be the Contax model favored by Lee and Mydans and shown below.5

Favorite Cameras of Russell Lee and Carl Mydans

Most of the FSA photographers carried 35mm cameras with them and used them for action shots, candids, and the like. These handy, fast, easy to operate cameras were also the camera of choice for Russell Lee and Carl Mydans as well as Ben Shahn. Lee and Mydans used Contax cameras like this one:

{source: Contax I;}

The others tended to carry Leicas like this one:

{Leica IIIc; source:}

Shahn would take surreptitious candid shots using a reflex attachment to his viewfinder. Here's a Leica with this set-up:

{Leica II with WINKO right angle finder; source: pacificrimcamera}


Additional sources:

View camera article on wikipedia

How to get started in large format photography article on

Large Format Camera Technique, explains some aspects of operation of the view camera



1 This image shows the ways in which the lens plane and the film plane can be shifted in using a view camera.


2 This image shows a ground glass focusing screen at the back of a view camera.


3 See Film Size Comparison to see how much larger is an 8 x 10 sheet of film than are the 35mm and intermediate size images.

4 The shot he is taking:

{Bethlehem graveyard and steel mill. Pennsylvania, Nov. 1935. By Walker Evans; source: Library of Congress}

5 Although it looks like she's got the Contax II model, like this one:

{Contax II; source: ldtomei.googlepages}

a street in Selma

During the winter of 1935-36, Walker Evans moved through the American South on assignment from the Farm Security Administration. Evans and the other FSA photographers were given great freedom to select subjects and even locations for their work. They all depicted people in their homes and workplaces, suffering, enduring, and waiting out hard times. Evans was unusual in choosing also to show architectural subjects — boarding houses, farm shacks, shops, and the like, and the billboards, marquees, and other public advertising of the time. He took the following photographs one late morning in December 1935 on a street in Selma, Alabama.

All come from FSA collections in LC's Prints and Photos Division. All have captions by LC staff made from information in the FSA sets of negatives and prints. Evans was notorious for failing to give details about his pictures and these are no exception.

Evans took these two at the same location at almost the same time:

{Sidewalk scene in Selma, Alabama}

{Sidewalk scene in Selma, Alabama}

As you can see from the white-hatted shoeshine man on the right of the top photo and on the left of the bottom one, the two can almost be combined into a seamless panorama image. He moved the camera between the two shots and that took enough time so that the scene in the open doorway changed (people in the first and a dog in the second), but the time elapsed was small enough so that shoeshine man holds the same pose in both.

Here are the two images stitched together side by side:

Evans liked to take photos in strong light with the sun high but not directly overhead. He used a slow shutter to capture fine detail and keep both foreground and background in focus. The slow shutter is apparent where you see blurred motion of figures in the shadows.

Here are cropped details from both of the photos:

Friday, October 30, 2009

working from can to can't

In June and early July 1937 Dorothea Lange took these dramatic photographs on the Aldridge Plantation, a 4,000-acre cotton farm in Washington County of the Mississippi Delta region.1 The photos show tractors as a symbol of the federal and local policies which were enabling plantation owners to consolidate their holdings, mechanize operations, and force Black farmers off the land.

A book by Clyde Adrian Woods2 explains this use of racial domination to destroy of Southern Black communities and shows how the established power of White supremacy attempted to portray this economic and social revolution as a beneficial transition from an inefficient labor-intensive mode of agriculture to a modern capital-efficient one based on a benign and progressive market economy.3

Another book by a man named Russell Lord gives the land-owner's point of view.4 He writes lyrically of the "triumph of the machine over the old cabin," of deliverance from "hand hoe and mule labor," of "economic salvation," and "an assurance of all the blessings of progress." He quotes the owner of the plantation, Joseph H. Aldridge, as saying "I got sick of trying to do business with one hand and play Santa Claus with the other. . . . I wish I knew how to make plain to you the way it gets to you, having that many people dependent on you yet not being able to deal with them in a direct, businesslike way."5

Here are some of the photographs that Dorothea Lange took at the Aldridge Plantation in June and July 1937. She took them as an employee of the Farm Security Administration and they are all found in collections of the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division. Click to view full size. Captions are by LC staff from information provided with the negatives. Note that one of them quotes Aldridge himself, another quotes one of his workers, and others give some details about working conditions on the farm.

{The riding boss.6 Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi}

{Old Negro. He hoes, picks cotton and is full of good humor. Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi}

{A crew of two hundred colored hoers were brought to the Aldridge Plantation to hoe cotton at one dollar a day. Many of them are ex-tenant farmers. Near Leland, Mississippi}

{Lunchtime for cotton hoers. Mississippi Delta.}

{Tractor driver. Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi}

{Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi}

{Wife and child of tractor driver. Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi}

{Wife of tractor driver on the Aldridge Plantation. Mississippi}

{Negro on the Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi. "We know our white folks (planters) and just what to say to please them"}

{A tractor pioneer of the Mississippi Delta. In 1927 he had 160 colored tenant families working his land, in 1936 he won thirty Farmall tractors and employs thirty families on day labor basis. He says, "Now I can make money. Hours are nothing to us. You can't industrialize farming. We in Mississippi know how to treat our niggers"}

{Plantation owner with one of the Negro plantation children. Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi}


{[Not from the Aldridge Plantation but germane:] This man was a tenant on the same farm for eighteen years. He has six children. This year he was forced into status of day laborer on the same farm. The farm owner employed twenty-three tenant families last year. This year, the same acreage, using tractors, requires seven families. Ellis County, Texas}



1When one of the Aldridge Plantation photos appeared on the Shorpy blog, two commenters gave some information about the place:
a) Aldridge plantation
Submitted by Mims Aldridge on Sun, 06/29/2008 - 5:48pm.

Does anyone have any information on the Aldridge plantation outside of Drew, Mississippi? The original owner, Jack Aldridge, passed it on to his son Clem. After Clem died the property was taken over by Martha Aldridge. I am trying to get any information that I can about this property and its history.

b) Submitted by Bud on Thu, 03/26/2009 - 3:42pm.

I think the Aldridge Plantation worker picture here was near Leland, Mississippi. My family still owns land just south a couple of miles from here. There was another picture of old Joe Aldridge and some workers in the FSA pictures. There were several Aldridge family plantations in the area. One at Wilmot (Suitsme Plantation) and another at Estill. Both on Deer Creek but farther south. I don't know about the Drew Aldridges. It's a small world.
2 Development arrested: the blues and plantation power in the Mississippi Delta, by Clyde Adrian Woods (Verso, 1998)

3 Here is a link to some extracts from the book by Clyde Adrian Woods

4 Men of earth, American farmers and the rise of agribusiness, by Russell Lord (Longmans, Green, London, 1931)

5 Here is a link to some extracts from the book by Russell Lord

6 The term riding boss carried over from the slave plantations; he was a mounted field foreman.

This image by another FSA photographer shows the riding boss on horse.

{Riding boss checking off cotton brought in by pickers, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi, 1939, by Marion Post Wolcott for the Farm Security Administration}

Additional sources on the riding boss:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the rapture of mere being

Last Sunday my cousin Alice based her sermon on the opening verses of Psalm 34. She took for her title the beginning of the fifth: “Look to God, and Be Radiant”.

Her sermons are frequently informative, charming, witty, and profound and this one is no exception. She tells us what the word Paradise meant to early Christians — a place where you could go to find comfort, beauty, and freedom from the stresses of daily life; a garden, but not a remote or long-ago one like Eden, but rather a here-and-now public space, a park, a place of repose.

She says early Christians expanded the pre-Christian definition of the term to cover their experience of their religion in the world of their time. Drawing upon a book called Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, she goes on to say "Paradise. That was the defining visual metaphor of the early church – not suffering, not death – not atonement, not sacrifice – but Christian life as life in paradise. Jesus as giver of paradise, and not paradise in our sense of the word, an other worldly place – but paradise in the here and now. '[T]his world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God.'[p. xv]"

She says, more than a place, paradise was "a way of being in the world, a way of living — and that way of living and being was most present and obvious in the church."

For us today, she says, paradise is metaphorically a place to experience
theosis — human divinity — not in the sense of, “Oh goody, I get to be boss and I am GOD!” but rather in the sense of – “All of creation expresses God and I am part of that. I am completely one with God.”
In closing she exhorts us to "Live in paradise. Be radiant!"

One evening in April 1895 William James said something quite similar in an address to the Young Men's Christian Association in Harvard.* His subject was not joyful embracing of life through community worship. He did not describe church as a space in which "clouds of witnesses embraced this life and lifted it to touch the heavens."** Rather, his subject was the effects of a psychological condition, the indifference that he saw among people of his time — a feeling of disconnectedness, a sense of powerlessness in the face of the uncertainties and ambiguities of daily life, a condition he called (after Seneca) tedium vitae.

But though his subject was different the thrust of his argument was very similar to my cousin's.

He said he knew that the progress of knowledge over the course of the century which then was coming to a close had negated the religious certainties of earlier generations. He quotes a pessimistic poet of his day on the meaninglessness of a life ruled by chance and uncertainty in which churches are unable to guarantee redemption:
We have no personal life beyond the grave;
There is no God; Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth:
Can I find here the comfort which I crave?***
He told his audience that they could not count upon a divine reckoning, on second coming to judge the living and the dead; they could not realistically hope to ascend into Heaven after death. There was no real likelihood of atonement for sins and nothing to be gained by religious sacrifice. Still, he told them, with the sort of faith he advocated they might again learn to experience "the rapture of mere being." In fact, he said, it that their faith might help bring about this paradise. Though he used a different terminology, he said in effect that they, by means of faith, could (just maybe) experience theosis and experience a sort of paradise in this world.

He told them they had to accept the battering that religious dogma had taken throughout the century as scientific advances and philosophic inquiry undermined its rational bases:
We of the nineteenth century, with our evolutionary theories and our mechanical philosophies, already know nature too impartially and too well to worship unreservedly any God of whose character she can be an adequate expression. Truly, all we know of good and duty proceeds from nature; but none the less so all we know of evil. Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference, — a moral multiverse, as one might call it, and not a moral universe. To such a harlot we owe no allegiance; with her as a whole we can establish no moral communion; and we are free in our dealings with her several parts to obey or destroy, and to follow no law but that of prudence in coming to terms with such other particular features as will help us to our private ends. If there be a divine Spirit of the universe, nature, such as we know her, cannot possibly be its ultimate word to man. Either there is no Spirit revealed in nature, or else it is inadequately revealed there.

James said the people of his time should in effect move on from the now untenable beliefs of their forefathers. He challenged them to see unbelief as itself a challenge and invited them to accept the adventure of a fight waged resolutely and obstinately against great odds in opposition with the "powers of darkness." He said the weapons of this fight were mankind's natural curiosity, its sense of honor, and its latent pugnacity and willingness to go into battle.

And he said the purpose of this struggle should be to reveal a "harmonious spiritual intent" in the universe beyond the scientific certainties of the known world. He says people have a psychological predisposition to believe in "harmonies hidden between all the chinks and interstices of the crude natural world." This predisposition is as much a fact as other scientific certainties "and if needs of ours outrun the visible universe, why may not that be a sign that an invisible universe is there?"

He said he believed that faith could make life worth living, but not a conventional, unquestioning one. He said faith must acknowledge intellectual doubts and philosophic uncertainties. Religion gains strength and effectiveness not from its dogma, from any supposed literal and factual truth, or from its liturgical practices, but from the "personal response" of believers: "I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity."

He says life is an adventure. As with all adventures there can be no certainty of the outcome. But, despite the uncertainty inherent in human existence, the adventure is an exciting and fulfilling one. And the faith we hold in the human potential for goodness is our salvation from the despair that can overwhelm us in the face of our uncertainties.
For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight, — as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears. For such a half-wild, half-saved universe our nature is adapted.
He says (paraphrasing), it is "through the cracks and crannies of caverns that waters form the fountain-heads of springs, and likewise it is within our deep selves, our crepuscular depths of personality, that the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise." He asks us to seek out the heart of our inner being where "we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears" and to "be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact."

{William James; source:}

{William James; source:}


Some sources:

“Look to God, and Be Radiant”
October 25, 2009
Rev. Alice Hildebrand
Sunset Congregational Church, UCC
First Congregational Church of Deer Isle, UCC
Psalm 34:1-13, Jeremiah 31:7-14, Mark 10:46-52

'This present paradise' by Rita Nakashima Brock And Rebecca Ann Parker

Is life worth living? by William James (S. Burns Weston, 1896)

The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy by William James (Longmans, Green, And Co. New York, 1912)

Seneca's Epistles Volume I



* Is life worth living? by William James (S. Burns Weston, 1896) - or - The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy by William James (Longmans, Green, And Co. New York, 1912). Jackson Lears discusses this lecture in a book I'm currently reading: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920.

** Source: 'This present paradise' by Rita Nakashima Brock And Rebecca Ann Parker

*** Source: Our country, its possible future and its present crisis by Josiah Strong (Pub. by the Baker & Taylor Co. for the American Home Missionary Society, 1891)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jim Crow

Among the many well-known photos that Walker Evans took in the mid-1930s, a few show business enterprises and the folks who run and patronize them. Here are images from two shoots, the first in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the second in Sprott, Alabama.

Evans took them while employed by the Farm Services Administration and all can be found in the FSA collections in LC's Prints and Photos Division. Click to view full size.

Evans was notorious for failing to record details about his images and did no better than usual in these instances. The ones from Vicksburg simply say "Negroes and shop fronts." After the first image, I've given enlarged crops to show detail. The others appear without embellishment or caption.

{Caption: Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar.}

In these details from this image, notice that Evans has framed the shot so that it's not self-contained, but rather spills over on left and right. The people it shows are looking at something outside the frame to the camera's right. The car's license plate says it's from California, and that might be a clue to whatever event is taking place off camera (or maybe not). The structures are unsubstantial, not much more than shacks. The men's clothing varies from quite formal (suit and tie) to shirtsleeves. All wear hats. There's a woman present who moved her head while the shutter was open. She's wearing a dress, stockings, and pumps. This row of shops possesses four barber shops along with low-end retail and service establishments. One has a horseshoe over the door for good luck. An ad shows a lady smoking a Camel cigarette. The cough remedy, 666, is still made (the company boasts: 666 Cold Preparation Family Approved for 100 years). The bright sunshine comes over Evans' left shoulder illuminating the storefronts and casting the doorways into deep shadow.

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}

{Detail of "Vicksburg Negroes and shop front. Mississippi. 1936 Mar."}


Here are some of the other shots that Evans took in this location at this time. From the angle of the sun, the first seems to have been taken at about the same time as the one above. The ones that follow were probably taken the same day but an hour or two after.

This photo shows a general store in rural Alabama. Again I've included some details from the image. In this case there is only one other shot taken of the same location.

{Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936}

Notice that the group of (mostly) black men are dressed in work clothes and two white guys stand out in their light-colored trousers and white shirts. They, the two, probably work in the general store as proprietor and clerk. The bright sunlight sets them off from the others.

Among the men in work clothes, one is digging out something from a container, probably chewing tobacco. His neighbor on the left has a large bottle in his pocket, possibly whiskey. A little ways down the line, next to the gas pump, a guy is smoking a cigarette. The oil tank on wheels reminds me of the service station where I worked when I was in high school in the 1950s; old gear like that oil pump was being phased out during the few years I had part-time jobs there.

{Detail of "Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936"}

{Detail of "Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936"}

{Detail of "Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936"}

{Detail of "Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936"}

{Detail of "Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936"}

{Detail of "Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936"}

{Detail of "Crossroads store. Sprott, Alabama. Taken in 1935 or 1936"}


Here's the other shot of the store.