“Outside the South, the white Southerner who believes in segregation is sometimes pictured as a latter-day Simon Legree who now does with the law what used to be done with a whip. ...There are Southerners who fit this picture, but there are many more who are thoughtful, pious, gentlefolk -- who are still in favor of segregation. ...They may call the Negro a ‘Nigra’ or a ‘nigger’ but they have long since ceased meaning any harm or insult by it.”
Life, 17 September 1956
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Photographs are notoriously ornery critters. Their meanings are as slippery as eels, as impossible to nail down as Jell-O is to a wall. Photos mean different things to different viewers and different things in different contexts.
I'm absolutely certain that Margaret Bourke-White didn't want the photos that she made for Part III of Life magazine's 1956 series on racial segregation in the South -- "The Voices of the White South" -- to be a defense of white supremacy and an affront to African Americans. But that's exactly what they were.
Life, 17 September 1956, pp. 108-09. Margaret Bourke-White photos. [Click on any of the images to see larger versions.]
It that sounds like a harsh judgment on Bourke-White, I don't mean it to be. By 1956, nearing the end of a career that had taken her to the very top of her profession, she had a well-earned reputation as a political progressive whose sympathies were on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Her photos, her books, and personal letters make this perfectly clear.
But photographers have little control over how people interpret their photos, even with the most rigorous captioning. What's more relevant to this discussion is that Life's photographers had almost no control over how their editors used their photos. Selection, cropping, captioning, context -- all of these things were out of the photographers' hands. Usually, Life did the photos justice. Sometimes, it didn't, and that's the case here.
Take the two-page spread directly above. Bourke-White's assignment had taken her to Greenville, South Carolina. As I read the photos (they wre always the primary carrier of information in Life), the message is pretty simple -- segregation isn't so bad; white people in the South are working hard to make black lives better.
The text reinforced that message. The caption under the large photo of the swimming pool reads, "Negroes Swim in the New $33,000 Pool, Built for Them in Greenville's Green Point. The Park, Which Has a Negro Director, Includes a $33,000 Skating Rink and a $3,400 Playland for Young Children." The article itself added that
The white population of Greenville enthusiatically supported all of these measures, for which the collective word is "equalization" -- improved conditions for Negroes but not integration.
According to Life, Greenville's whites found it "perplexing" that "leading Negroes... have become apathetic to civic improvements designed specifically for Negroes on the ground that the improvements tend to entrench segregation...."
Life, 17 September 1956, pp. 110-11. Margaret Bourke-White photos.
The next spread (above) is more complicated. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the photo of the couple dancing in a juke joint and linked it to a very similar, well known photo that Marion Post Wolcott made in another juke joint almost twenty years earlier. I admitted that some people might see the photos as reproducing old stereotypes about happy, carefree black people, who just want to have a good time. I argued, however, that the images transcended stereotypes, when seen in context. I think I was wrong, at least about Bourke-White's photo.
Context is everything. While the photo's caption was bland -- "In 'Harlem Cafe' Negroes dance to a jukebox. The city operates a more sedate club for teenagers, but juke-joints get more business" -- the accompanying text wasn't.
Speaking of Greenville's mayor, it said that he
does not subscribe to the notion that Negroes are inherently inferior. ...He does feel, however, that Negroes comprise the lowest social element in his city, and the statisitics of his police department can be used to support the view.
Life went on to note that
Many of the Negroes’ involvements with the law follow an unattractive pattern which is often cited by white Southerners as an argument for segregation. It begins on Saturday night in a noisy juke-joint, where drinking leads to quarreling and quarreling leads to a fist of razor fight....
Rather than discuss poverty, unemployment, selective law enforcement, and the essential fact that only a minority of the black population would have spent its Saturday nights in juke-joints, Life instead offered photos of black men being arrested, facing a judge, and working on a chain gang.
It's plausible to imagine that many of Life's readers -- 20 million of them, overwhelmingly white -- would have concluded that people who behave like that deserved to be segregated.
Let me emphasize that I don't believe that Bourke-White wanted her photos to be read this way. I'd guess, for instance, that she was ironically referencing Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" in the chain gang photo. I'd also bet that some readers saw it that way. But the stronger message is about black irresponsibility and criminality.
Life, 17 September 1956, pp. 114-15. Margaret Bourke-White photos.
Bourke-White also photographed a white sharecropper and his family, who lived just outside of Greenville (above and below). As Life's editors saw it, the Joyner family was a model of hard-working stability -- in sharp contrast to his African-American neighbors:
...as Marshall Joyner sees it, the big difference between him and his neighbors, aside from skin color, it this: "I keep on the go. We’re working to own our own farm. We want to hurry up and get someplace. But they just don’t work. They just don’t care. All their looking for is the end of the week when the landlord will shoot ‘em a little money."
Joyner is temperate; his notion of a good relaxing time is to walk down to the store for a bottle of pop. He keeps his farm neat. When he quits work he takes a shower.... "But they take a bath once a month," he says, "and their fields don’t look like they’s hardly tending them."
It almost goes without saying that Life didn't ask Joyner's black neighbors for their point of view.
Bourke-White's photos here have little to say about African Americans. They're about the Joyners, reinforcing Life's depiction of them as a wholesome American family, precisely the sort of people with whom readers could identify.
Life, 17 September 1956, pp. 116-17. Margaret Bourke-White photos.
I got interested in Life's series on segregation in the South when I read Maurice Berger's fine account of black photographer Gordon Park's contribution to the project on the New York Times' Lens Blog. I was happy to discover that Bourke-White, about whom I'm writing two long articles, contributed to the series.
As it turns out, Parks' photos and the tone of the text in Part IV: "The Restraints: Open and Hidden" were quite different from Part III. In fact, Part III is something of an anomaly. Overall, the series was gently critical of segregation and supportive of African-Americans' claim to full citizenship.
But Bourke-White's photos, within the context of Part III, naturalized and rationalized segregation. She was probably horrified. I sure hope so.
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There's another reason that I'm fascinated by the images that Bourke-White made for the segregation series -- they're in color rather than black and white, and she made them with 35mm and medium format cameras rather than large format cameras. That is, they're radically different from the photographs that made her famous.
Here's Carl Mydans, another great Life photographer, writing about her usual working methods.
...she was highly visible. Never one of the "invisible witness" school of photographers who work unnoticed with 35mm cameras and value most highly the untampered picture, she worked instead with a large camera, multiple flashes, and often a battery of assistants to carry her heavy equipment and set up lights.
Bourke-White was after something that she believed demanded a precise technique. As Vicki Goldberg put it...
She sought an enduring image of grandeur and an impression of monumentality, not a glimpse of the fleeting and awkward life of every day. Her highly educated and rather original sense of design overrode the fragmentary and unsettling compositions that the camera so naturally produces....
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Near silhouettes of two African American teenage boys ducking through showers outside segregated swimming pool. Greenville, SC, 1956. [Google archive caption.]
Unfortunately, Bourke-White's methods -- and her photos -- were looking increasingly old fashioned (and had been since at least the late 1930s). Goldberg, again...
A new aesthetic was being born, which put a higher value on the realism of everyday life and the haphazard quality of snapshot compositions.
You can see Bourke-White reaching for that new aesthetic in some of the photos that were published in Part III and in many that didn't make it into the magazine. (The photo above and the two below are among the scores of outtakes in the Life archives.) She's going for something looser, freer, and more spontaneous. Sometimes, she got it. Beautifully.
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Segregation, South Carolina (Separate & Unequal Recreation Facilities). Greenville, SC, 1956. [Google archive caption.]
Sometimes, it was a near miss. (But I do love this photo, if only because I can imagine how differently it would read if the family were black.)
(It's possible that Bourke-White's move to smaller, lighter 35mm and medium format cameras had nothing to do with the aesthetic possibilities that they opened up. By 1956, the Parkinson's Disease that would soon end her career was already limiting her mobility.)
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Greenville, SC, 1956. [Google archive caption.]
And sometimes she fell back on her old techniques.
Bourke-White clearly directed the photo above. There's nothing spontaneous about it. It seems to me that she wanted to send a message about America's racial hierarchy and to send it loud and clear.
But I'm a black man and the year is 2012. I doubt that the average Life reader -- who was white and middle class -- saw it that way. Many of them, North and South, would have employed black women to do the cooking and cleaning. To them, this would have been little more than a pleasant domestic tableau.
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As always, I'd like to hear what you think. If the spirit moves you, please leave a comment.