Symbols of Ideal Life

Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950

by Maren Stange

published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & New York, 1989

In Symbols of Ideal Life : Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950, Maren Stange examines the dissemination of photographs as publicity for social reform campaigns.

Photography, especially in the early years of the technology, has enjoyed a reputation for producing images which are in some way more "real" than other graphic representations like painting. This sense that photography is real and somehow objective has allowed the reformers Stange examines to set forth a compelling Truth about social conditions. Yet we know that this Truth is merely a truth as seen by some, as subjective as any other representation, just as laden with the ideology of those that claim it to be Truth.

Stange traces the ways in which social documentary photography began to distinguish itself from other forms, exploiting photographic conventions in order to present Truth, reality, in certain way. Black and white photography, uncontrolled lighting, and informal composition came to characterize the genre--photographs seemingly natural, simply caught in an instant of life and therefore real, but stark and compelling in their absence of color.

"Throughout the century," Stange argues, "the documentary mode testified both to the existence of painful social facts and to the reformers' special expertise in ameliorating them, thus reassuring a liberal middle class that social oversight was both its duty and its right" (xiii). Most of the images examined, although many bear names like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange and Russell Lee, were made by photographers who were employed by reform organizations as staff members.

These works are examined in context with the literature of reform which so importantly accompanied the images, helping to provide an interpretation for the viewer. In their presentation to the public, these photographs took on meaning consistent with the goals of reform, often distorting the social and aesthetic significance held for their makers and for their subjects. The enduring photographs of the Farm Security Administration, Stange posits, are "realistic, yet visually appealing images--'symbols of ideal life,' in philosopher John Dewey's phrase--and formal complexity as well as radical content were suppressed in the pictures that became popular" (xvi).

Symbols of Ideal Life : Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950 presents a narrative of the ways in which photographic images have been used to the ends of social reform movement and asks us to reexamine our understanding of photography as truth.


reviewed by Jessica Coe

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