In 1938, Ben Shahn traveled the back roads of central Ohio, hoping to discover the "average American." He was on a three-month assignment for Roy Stryker's legendary photo documentary project, which was a unit of the federal government's Farm Security Administration [FSA]. He'd worked as a photographer for Stryker on and off (mostly off) since 1935, so the two men knew each other well. On two trips through the South, Shahn had produced some of the strongest and best known photos in the FSA collection. His photos vividly documented the ways in which the Great Depression had disrupted the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. But he'd come to believe that he and the other FSA photographers (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Margaret Bourke White, and others) had captured "just one side of America, the real poverty stricken."
Now Shahn wanted to do something quite different.
Ben Shahn: Street scene, Circleville, Ohio. 1938. (Shahn's reflection can be seen in the window. He's using a Leica 35 millimeter camera, equipped with a right-angle viewfinder. All of the photos in this post appear in Ben Shahn's American Scene and are draw from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress. Click directly on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
Shahn was determined to capture life on "nice little middle class street[s]." He knew that it would be hard to make compelling photos of "neat and clean and orderly" Ohio towns and of the average mid-westerners who lived in them, but he was ready for the challenge. (In contrast, it had seemed to him that in the impoverished South "wherever you point the camera there is a picture.") Styker, who had become deeply concerned about the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Europe, was now asking his photographers for images that celebrated what he believed were America's small town, democratic values. As a result, he and Shahn were in some ways seeing eye to eye. In others they weren't, and it's that tension that gives John Raeburn something to write about in his new book, Ben Shahn's American Scene: Photographs, 1938.
Ben Shahn: Street scene, Marysville, Ohio. 1938.
If the photos that Shahn produced in Ohio weren't his best, it's easy to understand why. He had a lot on his mind. Money was tight, and his girlfriend, Bernarda Bryson, was about to give birth to the couple's second child. (His divorce from his first wife, Tille Goldstein, wouldn't become final until 1944.) The salary that Shahn earned working for Stryker was only about half of what he had recently brought home while employed by the FSA's Special Skills section. In an effort to find cheap childcare and reduce living expenses, the couple had moved into the crowded home of Bernarda's parents, just outside of Columbus, Ohio. Despite (or, more likely, because of) his worries and distractions, Shahn worked diligently throughout the summer and produced photos that were, as his most recent biographer, Howard Greenfield, says, "honest... evocations of small-town life."
Ben Shahn: Farmer and banker, Plain City, Ohio. 1938.
Even when he's not at the top of his game, Shahn is worth paying attention to. He was, after all, one of the finest visual artists that America has ever produced. While he's most famous as a painter and muralist, Raeburn correctly points out that his photos "are as distinguished as his fine art, and deserve as wde an audience." As a skilled and insightful documentary photographer, Shahn used his camera to both depict and interpret the world around him. The "incisiveness of his cultural analysis," Raeburn says, is especially "evident when individual photographs are seen alongside the other he made that summer." It's an important point and a convincing one. Raeburn sustains it as he leads his readers through several different sets of photos that Shahn made during his summer in Ohio.
For instance, the three photos above are among many that, according to Raeburn, show "men congregating in democratic fellowship," capturing the egalitarian ethos of Ohio's small towns. This is a strong argument, on several different levels. The caption of the photo directly above (one of at least three different photos that Shahn made of the same two men at roughly the same moment in time) makes his take on small town life explicit. Standing together on the sidewalk, passing time in a public space, the "farmer and banker" show how, as Raeburn says, how "sociability... transcends social divisions and creates an atmosphere conducive to the democratic spirit...."
Shahn was no Pollyanna, however. He understood that democratic fellowship had its limits, and here he parted ways with Stryker and most other Americans of his day.
Ben Shahn: Bus station, Marion, Ohio. 1938.
Raeburn writes that Shahn's long-standing "commitment to social justice" made it impossible for him to ignore "the violation of democratic ideals" that he discovered in small town Ohio. He was particularly incensed by racism and contempt for the poor. There's no doubt about this. Shahn was man of the left, with strong progressive convictions. This sometimes made life difficult for those who were closest to him. But, as Greenfield says in his biography, "in his work and in much of his life, his anger and bitterness were aimed at injustice and bigotry...."
Had the photo above been made by someone else, it might have been simply another that showing men gathered in democratic fellowship. But Shahn didn't want the photo to be seen isolation. Seen as part of a set, its meaning changes -- and not just because the two men are African-American. Another photo (below) that was made moments before or after the one above shows the same two men and same bus depot from a different angle. In it, viewers see two racially distinct gatherings of men. Shahn wanted his viewers to understand that small town fellowship was rea;. but rarely crossed racial boundaries.
Ben Shahn: Bus station, Marion, Ohio. 1938.
Shahn went out of his way to photograph African-Americans. This wasn't because they were hard to find. The black population of the small towns that he visited in central Ohio was roughly 5,000. To photograph the lives of African-Americans he had to go out of his way in a literal sense: he had to cross over to "the other side of the tracks." This was no metaphor. Blacks lived in segregated spaces, something that Shahn emphasized in his captions.
Ben Shahn: Saturday afternoon in London, Ohio, "the other side of the tracks". 1938.
Raeburn says that while Shahn's "African-Americans were victimized, they were not solely victims." He points out that the building above is a storefront church. It might be seen, on the one hand, as an indicator of the community's poverty. But on the other, black churches have always been institutions created and sustained by the community itself and symbols of resistance to the culture of white supremacy that has surrounded it.
Ben Shahn: Resident of Plain City, Ohio. 1938.
Similarly, the man in this photo, which Raeburn tells us is one of "just a handful of close-in, individual portraits" that Shahn made in Ohio, has the look of someone who is no mere victim -- "[t]he man's concentrated gaze, clenched pipe, and akimbo stance give him an air of self-possession that dominates the photograph...."
Shahn was in good company, as far as his approach to photographing African-Americans is concerned. Several other FSA photographers -- Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and Jack Delano come immediately to mind -- consciously rejected the commonplace racial imagery of the day (see the posters below) and captured the inherent dignity of their black subjects.
Ben Shahn: Sign on restaurant, Lancaster, Ohio. 1938.
Shahn also wasn't alone in photographing the signs of racial discrimination. But few other photographers noted them in the North. As Raeburn says, to look at his photos is to be reminded "of how utterly racism permeated... daily life," in these Ohio towns.
Ben Shahn: Circus poster, Circleville, Ohio. 1938.
Traveling blackface minstrel shows, such as the one advertised in these posters, were slowly disappearing, in the late '30s. But blackface performances which demeaned and lampooned African-Americans were still very much part of the American scene, North and South. Shahn wasn't the only FSA photographer to record the phenomenon. But unlike the others he places his photo within a particular series and, by doing so, connects minstrelsy to more overt forms of racial oppression.
Ben Shahn: Dwellers in Circleville's "Hooverville," central Ohio. 1938.
Shahn's primary strategy in confronting injustice was to make visible people and communities that were ordinarily hidden. Sometimes that involved crossing the tracks to photograph the lives of African-Americans.
At other times, it involved leaving behind the business districts and "nice little middle-class streets" to document "Hoovervilles," makeshift communities of poor whites that, Raeburn tells us, were "segregated at the edge of town." Here, he writes, Shahn created images that provoked "empathy as well as pity" for those trapped in the Depression's downward slide.
Ben Shahn: Business district of Urbana, Ohio. 1938.
As much as we'd like to believe that photos are transparent windows on the truth -- "a picture is worth a thousand words" -- they are, in fact, notoriously slippery things, open to a wide variety of often conflicting interpretations. As Elizabeth Edwards has said it, "[b]y their very nature photographs are sites of multiple and contested" meanings, "despite their clamorous claims to th contrary." To put it another way, to pin a single meaning on a photo is like nailing jelly to the wall.
Still, it seems to me that Raeburn is on firm ground when he argues that Shahn's photos both celebrated the democratic spirit of small Ohio towns and lamented the ways that racial and class discrimination crippled it. I'm not so sure, however, about one of his other major claims.
Raeburn argues that photos like the ones directly above and below reflect "Shahn's perception that the American small town had entered into a period of decline...."
Ben Shahn: Cars line streets of Plain City, Ohio. 1938.
In photo after photo, Raeburn says, recurring motifs appear: "the torpor of the central squares and nearly deserted sidewalks." Shahn's visual interpretation of these Ohio towns, he contends, is one of "civic stagnation."
My reading of Shahn's photos is quite different. It's true that Shahn's sidewalks are often empty. But his parking spaces are almost always full. It seems to me that when viewed alongside the photos of men gathered in public spaces in democratic congress, Shahn is creating a vision of small town stability and relative prosperity. While lacking the dynamism of the big city, the towns have nevertheless managed to incorporate the modern -- the automobile -- while holding on to tradition (for better and for worse) -- the egalitarian ethos and racial exclusion.
Ben Shahn: Saturday afternoon in London, Ohio, "the main street". 1938.
In retrospect, it's easy to see the cars that clutter Shahn's photos as harbingers of things to come, especially the decline of the business districts, driven by the arrival of freeways, Walmarts, and other big box stores. But that future would not be visible for at least a generation. It's going too far to suggest that Shahn could somehow sense it was coming. All we have are his photos, and they don't say that to me.
But photos are slippery things. You can look at hundreds of Shahn's Ohio photos online at the FSA collection website and see what they say to you. (Just do an "all of these words" search for "Shahn Ohio." And don't limit the search to 100 "bibliographic results;" you'll get many more hits than that.)
Ben Shahn: Wonder Bar, hot spot in Circleville, Ohio. 1938.
I'll close with some thoughts on two photos (above and below) that touched me in a very personal way. They're another instance in which Raeburn's reading strikes me as being slightly off base.
Raeburn discusses the photos at the very end of the book and calls them "the most caustic that Shahn made that summer." Shahn's rare use of the flash yields a "harsh, awkward lighting" that's fully in sync with his "indignation about the racial injustice" that the Wonder Bar embodies.
So, Raeburn argues, in the first photo we see we see a black man whose "job is to entertain [white] patrons, while he is at the piano they are indifferent to his presence, as the turned back of the one at the bar indicates."
Ben Shahn: Wonder Bar, hot spot in Circleville, Ohio. 1938.
In the second photo, the musician "has finished his set and is timorously exiting the barroom. His hunched posture and deferentially downcast expression do not discourage the white patrons from a glowering surveillance of his passage."
A timorous exit... Indifference morphing into outright hostility... This is reading far too much into the limited evidence of these two photos.
A turned back can mean many things. Indifference is just one of them. The expressions and postures of all of the men in the photo above strike me as extraordinarily ambiguous. The piano player is caught in mid-stride. The man on the left is caught rising from his seat. I'm not sure that I'd want to read anything at all into this. Sometimes photos mumble.
The expressions on the faces of the men on the right are equally open to a variety of interpretations. Hostility is not the first one that came into my mind.
In the 1960s, I spent several years of my youth living in a small town in central Ohio. While racism was real, it it was by no means the sole defining factor in relations between blacks and whites. Cordiality and friendship were just as common as animosity and anger. Even outright bigots, who hated blacks in general, found it possible to know and like a few black individuals.
It's impossible to know exactly what's going on in the photos from the Wonder Bar. Most likely, the bar didn't admit blacks as patrons. Most likely, the piano player entertained regularly, making him a familiar face. This being a small town, most likely everyone knew his name. Most likely, he knew better than to hang around after he stopped playing. But reading much more into the photo, especially timidity and hatred, seems implausible to me.
It's surprising that Raeburn makes such a hard and fast interpretation of these photos. Elsewhere he praises the openmindedness that Shahn's photos reveal, saying that "receptivity to ambiguity" was "his survey's most distinguishing hallmark." It's a receptivity that Raeburn doesn't always share.
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Despite my reservations about one or two of Raeburn's interpretations, I'd like to be able to recommend Ben Shahn't American Scene wholeheartedly. But I can't. The reasons have nothing to do with Raeburn and everything to do with his publisher, the University of Illinois Press. Simply put, the reproductions of Shahn's photos are awful -- shamefully awful, in fact.
The book's reproductions are washed out, lacking clarity, contrast, and detail. They're far below the standard of, say, Time magazine. This might be adequate if the photos merely illustrated a text about another subject -- the way that a photo of a house illustrates an article about the real estate market.
But in this case, the book exists to serve the photos. They're the objects of our contemplation and of Raeburn's analysis. High quality reproductions are absolutely essential. Without them, the book's value is considerably reduced.
(Note: The photos accompanying this review look far better than those in the book. I created them from high-resolution downloads that are available at the FSA collection's website. I used the looked at those downloads when I evaluated Raeburn's arguments about particular photographs.)
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Another version of this review will appear in the Virginia Quarterly Review.