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17 March 2010


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This is an incredible post John.

Isn't it part of the big myth, that the money equals happiness?

fascinating post - so relevant even today

Great post. Thanks for sharing. I found the post because I use Google to send me what it finds on "Tunbridge, Vermont" which is where I live. I wanted to let you know the gentleman in the photo playing the fiddle is Ed Larkin (not Lorkin) and to this day the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers still perform in and around Tunbridge, and always at the Tunbridge Fair (http://tunbridgefair.com), which will occur this September for the 139th year!


You're right. Similar issues face photographers and viewers today.

As you know, A terrific conversation has been bubbling along on A Developing Story http://www.adevelopingstory.org/, a website that showcases and photography and multi-media projects from and about the developing world.

A couple of days ago, David Campbell was wondering why the western media relentlessly relies on stereotypes of war, disease, and disaster in its coverage of Africa http://www.adevelopingstory.org/2010/visualizing-%E2%80%98africa%E2%80%99-from-the-lone-child-to-the-middle-classes.

It's time, he says, for "the photographic visualization of Africa to offer something different."

Campbell's not denying that Africa has problems that demand our attention. He's making the point that Africa is much more than the sum of its catastrophes. He's calling for a broader, more inclusive vision of Africa--for photography that incorporates an Africa that's largely invisible in the western media.

He mentions Joan Bardeletti’s work on middle-class Africans, which shows "people, places, institutions and cultural events that are modern, well-resourced and more than a little familiar to the European eye."


Thanks very much for the information. I've updated the post.

"Well, there it is. The father washed his child's face. He manipulated reality, and Lange let him do it. Together they've created a lie. Pretty simple."

I don't believe there is an absolute truth, we all construct our own versions of reality. And this is so clearly shown with documentary photography. A photograph can't stand alone without text to anchor the meaning, it requires the context of other pictures to communicate more clearly for social change. Different audiences make different meanings from images, meaning making is a contested ground, and meanings change over time.

Why is the father wrong to wash his child's face? Maybe there are images of the father wiping the child's face? To want to play a role in how he is represented in Lange's pictures? Why should photographers guard the power of representation? Representation can be shared with the subject, as Lange's image of the clean child shows. Well done to Lange for photographing this image, and explaining why this child is now clean.

There are a handful of images that survive in popular memory out of the 270 000 images made during the FSA days. I think it's more useful to question the context of how the well known images are used and for what purpose they communicate than to question Lange's integrity as a photographer. W.Eugene Smith noted "a profession is not intrinsically honest, but the people who practice the profession can be."


If you read what I have to say in this post, you'll see that you're agreeing with me.

I didn't think the point of contributing to this discussion was one of agreement or disagreement, I prefer to rather see it as reflexive engagement. I'm considering citing your post in a dissertation I am writing around documentary photography as a tool of social change. I'd like to request your permission, please. And a question to clarify: who is the audience you refer, the "we"? Is the "we" bound to a geographic location or time as an audience of these photographs?


"And a question to clarify: who is the audience you refer, the "we"?"

"We" are the typical viewers of these photos, in the past and in the present. "We" are almost always more affluent than the subjects.

In the '30s and '40s, that was Roy Stryker's plan. As the head of the FSA/OWI documentary project, he believed that his mission was, most importantly, to generate support for the Roosevelt administration's New Deal projects among the middle and upper classes. He and his photographers were self-consciously addressing an affluent audience. That doesn't mean, of course, that only these sorts of people saw the photos.

In the present, the "we" in my post remains people of means. They are the people who are most likely to encounter the FSA/OWI photos in a systematic way. They are also the audience that is targeted by most--not all--contemporary documentary photography. Once again, other kinds of people will see the photos.

I also use "we" to indicate that, because of my class position, I am much more likely to be the audience (or author) of a documentary project than its subject.

I cannot get that picture, that baby's smile, out of my mind. For me, that photo hits me in a way that the one right above it of yet another tired young mother with her dirty sick baby in the Depression just doesn't. This one shows the poor, the homeless, as people who care, as people who try, while the one above just looks hopeless. I think viewers, even now, but especially then, would have to get fatigued by the first kind of image. The bottom image makes me want to go down to the employment office and give her husband a job.

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