Sometimes things come together in wonderful ways. This post was born out of an email exchange that I had with Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly and a comment that he made on this blog.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about a photo-essay that he had done on poor whites in South Africa. I returned to the subject, a few days ago, when the essay was featured on the the New York Times' Lens Blog. Finbarr's emails and comment added to and corrected my post. In his comment, he mentioned the South African photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee, who had photographed poor whites in the 1940s.
I'd known about Larrabee, but hadn't spent much time looking at her work. Finbarr's comment prompted me to poke around in her online archive, at the Smithsonian Institution. And there I found a photo that I knew I'd seen before.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Street photographer. Johannesburg, South Africa. 1948. (Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. Click directly on either of these images to see larger versions.)
This image comes out of a series of photos about black life in South Africa's largest city that Larrabee later assembled into a collection that she called the "Johannesburg Black Man." I was certain that I'd seen this photo, despite having never really studied Larrabee's work. Sure enough, I had -- except that Larrabee wasn't the photographer.
Ben Shahn: Itinerant photographer in Columbus, Ohio. 1938. (Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection.)
This is the photo, and it captures a moment ten years earlier and 9,000 miles away. The photographer was Ben Shahn, who's best known as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.
At the time, Shahn was on an assignment for the by-now-legendary documentary project at the federal government's Farm Security Administration. His mission was broader than Larrabee's -- he was concerned with both urban and rural life and with people of all colors -- but it shared with her's a desire to document as many facets of life as possible. Having written about Shahn several times (for instance, his encounter with an old time medicine show, in Tennessee, and his use of a Leica camera, equipped with a disguised viewfinder), I knew this photo well.
It's more than mere coincidence that the photos look remarkably the same. Photographers are often drawn to (and are assigned to) common subjects and themes. Larrabee and Shahn were working on similar documentary projects, after all, at roughly the same time. And, notoriously, photographers like to make pictures of other photographers. As Geoff Dyer points out in his exhilarating and exasperating book, The Ongoing Moment, anyone studying the history of photography quickly discovers that photos and subjects that he or she has identified with one photographer turn out to be "shared and replicated by several others."
Still, the convergence here pulls me up short. Two urban street photographers -- one African, the other African-American. Two men struggling to make a living. Two encounters with white documentarians. The moments were captured, but the stories, inevitably, were lost.
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PS, 12 August 2010: I'm in the middle of reading John Raeburn's new book, Ben Shahn's American Scene: Photographs, 1938. In it, he discusses Shahn's portrait of the itinerant photographer and sheds some light on the encounter between the two men:
The photographer specialized in tintypes, playing-card-sized portraits on a thin metal plate that could be rapidly developed on the spot and then delivered to the sitter. ...the popularity of tintypes waned around the turn of twentieth century, but into the thirties, itinerant photographers continued to make them, mostly serving a clientele for whom portrait studios or personal cameras were too dear.
...The portrait not only emphasizes the tintypist's unimpeachable dignity, it also hails him as Shahn's artistic colleague, in spite of the differences in their equipment, working methods, and intentions. ...As itinerant workers discovering their subjects along unfamiliar sidewalks, both relied on the camera's inherent capacity to isolate the subject of a photograph from the inchoate flux of ordinary experience, and on their visual imagination to bring out that subject's essential qualities...."