A week or so ago, I was talking about how photography lies, even when it's telling the truth. My case in point was the Great Depression. When most Americans think about the Depression, the images that come to mind are black and white photos of the hungry, the unemployed, and the homeless, dressed in tatter clothes.
Those images aren't wrong. But they're incomplete. After showing photos of people -- poor people -- creating a vibrant popular culture (and having fun) during the Depression, I quoted an important point the Lawrence Levine made over 20 years ago: "...even in the midst of disaster life goes on and human beings find ways... of rising above their circumstances and participating actively in the shaping of their lives."
Just today, the photographer Ciara Leeming (writing on the Duckrabbit blog) drew my attention to a terrific article that Ian Jack has written in the Guardian about the story behind this photograph. Jack makes a different, but related, observation -- we, the viewers, can make photos lie, even when the photos don't want to.
Jimmy Sime/Getty Images: The five boys who came to illustrate the class divide (1937).
Virtually everyone in Britain knows this photo. It's been reproduced countless times since Jimmy Sime made it in 1937. It's even been turned into a jigsaw puzzle. According to Jack, everyone who sees it thinks that they know what it means: "...nobody could be in any doubt of the story being told. England was still hopelessly divided by class." It's all perfectly clear.
Except that it isn't. The story is richer, deeper, and more complex than any simple reading suggests. And it upsets our preconceived notions about what the photo says. It's also a bit sad, at the end.
I won't spoil it for you. I'll only say that the rich boys weren't terribly rich, the poor boys weren't poor, and their lives didn't play out the way you might have expected them to.
You can read Jack's story, here.
Update, Palm Sunday, 28 March: Ciara Leeming just sent me a note, pointing me to a longer version of Ian Jack's article about Sime's photo. In it, Jack says quite a bit more about the way the photo has for many decades been used and abused in British popular culture. He also tells us more about Jimmy Sime, the photographer, and the five boys. It's on the Economist's website. Here's the link.