Art Chroncicles: Killed Negatives & the F.S.A.

Lange

Much as, for many people, Dorothea Lange’s portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, known as Migrant Mother, epitomises the suffering and endurance of the American heartland during the Great Depression, so this and other photographs that Lange took when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration in the 30s have come to be more or less fully representative of her career. This despite the fact that half a lifetime and more than half of that career were ahead of her.

After working for the FSA, she was hired by the War Location Authority to document the internment of Japanese American citizens following Pearl Harbour and then collaborated with Ansel Adams in documenting the lives of shipyard workers, men and, increasingly, women, who had moved to California to work in the booming wartime shipping industry in the final years of WW2. In the 1950s. together with her writer-son, Daniel Dixon, she produced an in-depth portrait of rural life in Ireland, before returning to America and working on photo essays dealing with inequalities in the justice system and the effects of large-scale government land projects on local communities.

Lange died in 1965 at the age of seventy, just a few months before a retrospective exhibition of her work opened at MOMA in New York. She wrote the following as a postscript to the show …

I would like to add a line to encourage persons interested in using a camera to concern themselves with making photographs of the life which surrounds them, to raise his [or her] sights to include what’s going on about us, to the camera to show this awareness.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing [in conjunction with Vanessa Winchip: And Time Folds] is at the Barbican until September 2nd. And, running until August 26, there is a very  interesting exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, which gives considerable insight into how Lange and the other photographers employed by the F.S.A. – Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott et al – were directed, encouraged and generally managed by Roy E. Stryker, who worked for the Farm Security Administration as Chief of the Historical Section of the Division of Information.

As Stryker later described himself …

I’m the guy who sat in the middle … I kept the store … My goal was to write the history of the Farm Security Administration. We didn’t collect many documents. We collected pictures. Many think I went down to Washington with a plan. I didn’t. There was no such plan … I was one-half editor, one-half papa, one-half hell-raiser, one-half publishing agent, and occasionally psychoanalyst without portfolio.

He may not have had a plan when he arrived in Washington at the beginning of his tenure, but, if indeed that were the case, one soon became clear. Arthur Rothstein, the first of Stryker’s hirings, was left in little doubt …

It was our job to document the problems of the depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.

Here’s an extract from a letter Stryker sent to another photographer, Jack Delano …

Please watch out for autumn pictures, as calls are beginning to come in for them and we are short. These should be rather the symbol of Autumn … cornfields, pumpkins … Emphasize the idea of abundance – the ‘horn of plenty’ – and pour maple syrup over it – you know, mix well with white clouds and put on a sky-blue platter. I know your damned photographer’s soul writhes, but to hell with it. Do you think I give a damn about a photographer’s soul with Hitler on our doorstep? You are nothing but camera fodder to me.

As becomes clear from the photographs and letters on display at the Whitechapel, Stryker was quick to dismiss a photo that, to his mind, didn’t reinforce the impression of America in the Depression that he was after, just as he would discard an image he considered to be inadequately  focussed or badly framed. These – and this is reflected in the name of the show – he ‘killed’ by punching holes through the negative – an act which Dorothea Lange considered an act of vandalism, but that didn’t stop him. Any more than it stopped him sending strongly-worded letters to his men and women in the field, criticising them for what he perceived as their lack of technical skill. And one of the pleasures of the exhibition is deciding on which grounds – poetical, artistic or technical – Styrker had decided to make his cull.

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NB . The Stryker and Rothstein quotes come from Paul Hendrickson’s excellent book, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott [Knopf, 1992] Currently out of print but ready available and, as is the case with all of Hendrickson’s  books, well worth reading.

 

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