A beautiful lake, a warm summer's day, the hint of romance in the air... As wonderful all that sounds, it didn't make Ben Shahn very happy. Visiting central Ohio's Buckeye Lake, in 1938, as part of an assignment from the Farm Security Administration to document the lives of "average Americans," put him in a grumpy mood. Everybody who knew him recognized that Shahn was a man with strong convictions. Even so, the "general caption" that he attached to the photos that he made at the lake is almost shockingly angry.
Ben Shahn: Looking over Buckeye Lake, near Columbus, Ohio. 1938. (All of the photos in the post are drawn from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress. Click directly on any of the images to see larger versions.)
Shahn wrote, as flames scorched the page:
Buckeye Lake is the weekend and summer months resort for all of central Ohio. Its patrons are clerks, Columbus politicians, laborers, businessmen, droves of high school and college students. The rich occupy one side of the lake, the rest rent cottages on the other side. It has an evil reputation and an evil smell. It has furnished Columbus and the neighboring small towns and cities with dancing, cottaging, swimming, etc. for several generations. This is the most unsavory place the photographer ran across in Ohio.
What on earth did this poor little resort do to earn such venom? It wasn't its tackiness. Shahn dug tacky. (See below.)
Ben Shahn: Sideshow attraction, county fair, central Ohio. 1938. (This photo is not from the Buckeye Lake series.)
The answer isn't in Shahn's photos of Buckeye Lake. There's nothing in them to account for his hatred of the place. In fact, this must be the only instance in which Shahn's photographic vision failed him. (Elsewhere, and on other topics, he's visually eloquent. See the links at the bottom of this post.) So, he resorted to words, and those words provide part of our answer: "The rich occupy one side of the lake, the rest rent cottages on the other side."
As John Raeburn points out in his new book, Ben Shahn's American Scene: Photographs, 1938, Shahn was a radical small -"d" democrat. One of the things that he liked most about Ohio's small towns was their democratic, egalitarian spirit. He made many photos that captured clusters of men -- farmers and bankers, merchants and laborers -- gathered together on sidewalks in a kind of Main Street sociability that ignored class divisions. The class segregation that he found at the Buckeye Lake would have struck him as a betrayal of the region's best values.
Ben Shahn: Scene at Buckeye Lake Amusement Park, near Columbus, Ohio. 1938.
There's undoubtedly another reason for the strength of Shahn's hostility toward Buckeye Lake. The lake's amusement park was racially segregated, off limits to African Americans, except on "Colored Day," which was held once a year.
Shahn often said that he had always hated injustice. Although he doesn't mention race in his general caption, he would have been acutely aware of the amusement park's racial policies. Race was very much on his mind during his stay in Ohio. Raeburn shows that he made it a point to visit "the other side of the tracks" (that's not just a metaphor) and document the segregated lives of African American citizens in small Ohio towns. The fact they they weren't embraced by the white majority's democratic ethos disappointed him (but came as no surprise).
Buckeye Lake's casual racism was another strike against it.
Ben Shahn: Real estate and loan office, Marysville, Ohio. 1938. (Click on the photo to get a better look.)
Reading Raeburn's book has been an excuse to go back to Shahn's Ohio photos and to see them with new eyes. I've been reminded how often folk art, hand-painted lettering, and signs appear in his photographs. All but one of the images in the post are examples.
It's not hard to explain Shahn's fascination with signs and lettering -- he was an accomplished journeyman lithographer, and he had supported himself, for a time, painting commercial signs (including a giant hot dog for Coney Island restaurant). These kinds of elements show up not only in his photos, but also in the paintings and murals for which he is much better known.
Ben Shahn: "Roadside inn," central Ohio. The figure of the body was originally distributed to advertise the Newark Indian Mounds. Redecorated. 1938.
In an important way, a photo like the one above is an homage to a fellow worker in the visual trade.
As I said, Shahn could really dig tacky.
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Shahn's one of my favorite photographers, and I've written several pieces on him. You can read about his encounter with an old-time medicine show, in Tennessee, here, and about his use of a small Leica camera, equipped with a right-angle viewfinder, here.