The common uses of cameras in early twentieth-century everyday life reflected Higonnet's categories of innocence but also created another stereotypical image of childhood: the family portrait. The invention of the daguerreotype in the 1840s introduced stylized portraits, especially of individuals. However, these were often stiff and impersonal. Forty years later, George Eastman developed a hand-held camera and gave birth to the snapshot. By 1900, Eastman's company was advertising the Brownie, a camera cheap and simple enough for children to use. Photography became a typical part of life with Americans capturing important as well as seemingly insignificant moments on film. These moments most frequently reflected family life, as Thomas Schlereth claims:

Many family snapshot albums, assembled from the 1880s to the 1920s, share perennial themes. Not two family albums are the same and yet all are alike. Most snapshots fall into obvious categories, the first being family and friends. Although professional photographers might be engaged to document milestones in the family history--weddings, graduations, anniversaries--snapshots were usually also taken of these events (199).

The "family," then, proved a recognizable theme in all photography--professional or amateur, posed or candid. FSA photographers relied on and challenged such stereotypical images. They tweaked ideas of the happy family portrait and their work evidences a looming threat to American family life.

Introduction
The FSA
'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
Conclusion
Sources
In different contexts, some FSA photographs could represent joyful, even proud, moments. Given the circumstances of 1930s life in migrant-worker camps or the dust bowl, however, the pictures forecast the breakdown of the most important social unit. In Lange's American Exodus, one photo exposes a large family broken down on the road in route to find work. The caption reads: " 'We're bound for Kingfisher, Oklahoma, to work in the wheat, and Lubbock, Texas, to work in the cotton. We're trying not to, but we'll be in California yet' family with seven children from Paris, Arkansas, on the highway near Webber Falls.' "
"Bound for Kingfisher"
"Bound for Kingfisher"
Although the family sits tightly in the back of a makeshift covered wagon in the road, Lange chooses to eliminate most of the highway from her shot. The vehicle occupies nearly the entire image with a trio of men attempting to fix a wheel on the lower right side. Above the men, the land slopes down gently toward the wagon, guiding the viewer's gaze in that direction. A vertical support beam in the center of the wagon opening also draws our attention toward the mass of bodies squeezed into the car. Shadows obscure our view of the family, but we can make out at least seven bodies sitting atop a pile of bedding. Most of these are children. None of the kids wear shoes and their dirty feet and ankles suggest much walking. Their faces are largely expressionless; they have consigned themselves to wait unfeelingly--for the wheel to be fixed, for the family to find employment, for the depression to be over. The boy who rests his face against the beam stands out from the rest. He wears denim overalls and a short-sleeved shirt, and the dirt on his arms equals that on his feet. However, his half-hidden face and closed eye convey something other than innocence. This is hardly a conventional family shot, though the group assembles and stares at the camera in much the same way as they would for a family portrait, and the boy knows it. His parents cannot adequately provide for his family, and he knows that, too. In addition to the implicit tension of happy family photo versus deprived and homeless children, Lange captures the ambiguity of their future. The family searches for work, demonstrating grit and resiliency in the face of trouble. Yet, they breakdown on the road, suggesting that forces beyond their control also affect their fate.
A second Lange shot--this one with the caption " 'Whole families go to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Bakersfield. Half the people of this town and around here have gone out there' said at the drug store"--displays another atypical family portrait. Unlike in the previous example and despite the accompanying caption, this family chose to stay with their home.
"Whole families go"
"'Whole families go to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Bakersfield. Half the people of this town and around here have gone out there'"

After presumably dragging furniture out of the house, they sit together mostly on a decrepit bed. They all wear tattered and stained clothes, but the grown-ups smile and laugh. One child wears a goofy grin while a couple of others cuddle up to the adults. Lange captures the family--adults and children--in a moment of happiness. On the far right side, viewer's spy a crop of some sort growing. Are these people among the lucky ones who manage to succeed despite the dry conditions? Are they merely taking a break from work? Or does their cheerfulness indicate an ability to overcome hardship and smile in the face of despair? The juxtaposition of relatively normal child and family behavior with the dilapidated household setting challenges the viewer to look again more closely. Lange herself would called the image a "second looker." It compels the viewer to consider the state of childhood in the Depression (MOMA, Lange 9). According to Miles Orvell:

The power of the photographs often derived from the uncanny effect of seeing people in situations that simulated normal activity but yet conflicted sharply with implicit norms: here are children reading a book in a living room papered with newspaper; here is a family gathered around a kitchen table for a meal that seems foodless; here are a mother and child in rags. By their facsimile representation of "normality" the photographs almost mock their subjects, although in no personal way (229).

Although "mock" suggests either ridicule or artifice, and neither denotation accurately reflects the FSA's purpose or accomplishments, Orvell succinctly articulates the strength of FSA "family portraits." Consider Lange's "Migratory mexican field worker's home."

"Migratory Mexican field worker's home"
"Migratory Mexican field worker's home"

The artful framing incorporates the barren landscape, the ramshackle house, and a father posed in an otherwise stereotypical image of contentedness. The center figure is the tiny house, insulated from the outside with newspapers and surrounded by trash, drawing our eyes first to the dark doorway. From it peaks a little girl. To the right of the house, a man cradles his baby in one arm while resting his foot on the bumper of a rundown car. In another setting--in a grass-lined driveway, for example, rather than on the edge of a pea field--viewers might interpret the pose as one of pride in family and home. Schlereth makes special note of a genre of family photos that gained popularity around 1915: "the snapshot often clustered everybody around a single prized possession: the family car" (200). The dilapidated automobile parked next to a clumsy house, then, is somewhat ironic, as is the man's hardened expression, which easily could pass as a smile. Perhaps he feels gratitude for his two young children? Perhaps he hopes that his infant will be spared the hardships the older sibling already has experienced? He seems confident in his ability to provide for his young family, and the presence of the vehicle demonstrates his success thus far. During the '30s, no one's future was guaranteed, but this father's pose suggests that he will persevere with all his might to protect his children.

 

 

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