April 23, 2005
As a former journalist-newspaperman, and someone with an intense interest in photography in all its forms and genres, I can tell you that the photographic image has long been able to powerfully affect me. While I am fascinated by the art form possibilities of photojournalism, it strikes me as either too raw in it's possibilities and outcomes or else too pedestrian or "everyday." Much of the photojournalism we end up seeing is censored by either the photographer himself or by the editors of publications or news outlets because they have to appeal to a mass audience and reality in his grittiest form is way too startling and upsetting to be regular fare in the media. This is not to say there are not truly memorable photographs that appear in our newspaper day in and day out, an example being the photography coming out of the war in Iraq. In the future, Web sites and Weblogs will be changing the nature of photojournalism as more and more people get their news and images from the Internet and as there are fewer and fewer censors and intermediaries.
Documentary photography, by contrast, while similar in many respects to photojournalism, is not as timely or infused with currency. It has always been the true "art" form of photography from the earliest days of the medium. It holds up to the test of time as only the very best photojournalism does.
By the early 1900s with the photography of Lewis Hine documenting the slum conditions of New York City, the potency of the camera to affect social change became apparent. With the advent of the big picture magazines such as Life and Look in the 1930s, the audience for documentary photography reached millions. When Roy Stryker was tapped to head the massive federal photography project (under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration) to document conditions during the depression years in America in the 1930s, the full maturation of the genre took place, almost as if some titanic creative force drove the photographers on their once in a lifetime mission.
The best place to view these photographs is at the Library of Congress's American Memory Project (link below). The FSA section is titled, "America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI."
I have also over the years bought books of photographs by the best of the FSA photographers: Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Doreothea Lange, John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn. But it was the work on one photographer, in particular, who had the most profound impact on me, mainly because time has proven his work to be among the best photography by any American, and also because he was the first documentary photographer that I discovered and was influenced by in my own photography when I was young.
The year was 1972 and, as some of you may remember from previous times I have written about this, I went to an exhbit of Walker Evans' photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I was a senior in college and had my whole life and budding career in journalism ahead of me, but that year I was concentrating on all my English major projects and assignments, including reading novels and short stories in American literature. It was all intertwined in a sense, I realize now. I was just preparing myself for what lay ahead.
I will never forget those phographs, the haunting pathos of the portraits of the people he came to know and the iconic brilliance of his portrayals of buildings, structures, and other architecture and signs he photographed. Go to this site and click on the photo, "Post Office, Sprott, Alabama." In that single image, a whole universe of the rural South is conveyed, from the dusty dirt road to the rural store/post office. To me, and I noticed it those many years ago, a whole world of social commentary and cultural history is contained in that one image. It's hard to explain but visiting The Walker Evans Project will give you a clearer idea. Evans' most important work is collected in the book "American Photographs."
One must be mindful that documentary photography is not necessarily pure realism. It can and is used by both the photographer and by editors and researchers to convey ideological and political statements and to re-inforce certain worldviews, opinions, and biases. See this article for insights into the ways the "medium" of documentary photography is used by the purveyers of the photographs to shape opinion and mood in a piece of art or a period of time.
In the years after I saw that exhibition I started on my own photographic odyssey, and it has continued to the present day, evolving into color landscape studies and impressions.. But in the 1970s and 80s, I did a lot of rural photography -- buildings, places, and people -- that owe a debt to the influence of Evans on my own work. You can see this as recently as 1998 in my photo essay on the tiny community of Lone Star in rural South Carolina that I have been visiting and photographing since 1974. Can you see Sprott, Alabama in Lone Star?
FSA photographs from the Library of Congress
April 16, 2005
I walk up the steps to the porch after a long day at work, tired but glad to be home. The streets are quiet, the sounds of children gone from the sidewalks. I notice again the tall oaks lining the street and the way they arch and form a canopy.
The porch is inviting. I am tempted to drop everything and rock awhile in one of the chairs that look out on the street.
But I go inside. The house is about 100 years old, built around the turn of the century. It has a small entry hall with a coat stand and hat rack. Not that I have a hat or anything. To the left is the parlor, to the right the living room which I have turned into a study.
Soon a fire will be crackling in the fireplace. I will glance at the shelves of books and select a few to read from after supper. I will put on some nice Mozart adagios to sooth and relax me.
Before much longer I have something on the stove cooking for supper. Music drifts in from the study. The old house feels good, secure and comfortable. There's a very slight musty, antique smell which I like. Time worn. Generations have come and gone in this house. It has character, personality.
After supper, I settle in my recliner chair. The clock on the mantlepiece chimes the hour. I am lost in thought.
Night sinks deeper into the evening. Embers in the fireplace glow and still warm the room. I am alone in the house, as always. I relish the solitude. Soon, I fall asleep in my chair.