Central Alabama

Houston or Erick Kennedy plowing, Arthur Rothstein, Gee's Bend, Alabama.
Ever striving to present a complete collection of all aspects of American life, Stryker discovered in February of 1937 that his beloved compilation was largely missing an important segment of the population. "The other day, while getting out a set of pictures for the Administrator to take to Congress," Stryker wrote Rothstein:

I realized how lean our file is on good southern tenancy pictures. [We must] find families that are fairly representative of the conditions in the tenancy areas, then take quite a series of pictures on each of these families, showing the house, the people, the children, the farm, the building and the fences, etc (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 146).

He quickly dispatched Rothstein to Gee's Bend, a remarkably primitive black tenancy settlement located about thirty miles southwest of Selma. The description given to the 700 or so residents of Gee's Bend makes the Virginia mountain folk seem downright modern. A 1937 report remarks that "truly these are primitive people, living together in this tribal like settlement far away from civilization in their habits and manner of living" (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 147). While offering a number of condescending comments about the residents' "primitiveness," the impression of Gee's Bend gained by Stryker and Rothstein is not simply a negative one. Although a focus remains the modernizing of the isolated settlement, an air of nostalgia also permeates the photographs. Placing the photograph's in the greater context of the belief of a vanishing rural past, Levine posits that Rothstein is "indulging in nostalgia for the self-sufficiency and simplicity of the Afro-American culture at Gee's Bend" (Brannan & Fleischhauer 28).

A zoomed in look at Rothstein's picture at the top of the page.
While clearly oriented itself in the regional culture of Alabama and the local culture of Gee's Bend, the photo to the top left dramatizes the FSA's and Rothstein's portrayal of the clash between traditional folkways and the modern techniques. The steel plow pulled by a mule illustrates a relatively recent technological achievement that only recently had been introduced to Gee's Bend; however, one can not question that the image fits securely within the picturesque--even pastoral--framework through which the settlement is viewed. As he tends his field, the man engages in the oldest of occupation and shows how tenable the bridge is between the past and the present. The wide landscape in the background further accents the naturalness of his act, and the simplicity with which he earns his living. While the steel plow illustrates the introduction of modern ways to Gee's Bend, it should be noted that Stryker was not ready to view the settlement through too modern lenses. For example, a Rothstein photograph of a new house under construction was among the killed negatives. Rural Alabama could slowly modernize, but it was important for its identity that it retain a tie to the idyllic and simple past.

Artelia Bendolph, Arthur Rothstein, Gee's Bend, Alabama.
The rather hopeless plight that slavery, then sharecropping, then tenancy has doomed countless Alabama blacks is further illustrated by the image at the top of this page. The dilapidated shacks are surrounded by leafless trees, dead and dying grass, and a cold, unremitting sky. At the center of the picture stands a tiny figure, its impotence mocked by the giant landscape that surrounds it. This far away shot of Rothstein's removes the power and endurance from the figure, because unlike the resonant pictures of pioneers, one is unable to spot any resilience in the figure's face--or even the figure's face at all. This shows the powerlessness of the central figure, a fitting illustration of the black's near impossible struggle to escape the long shadow cast by slavery. A zoomed in view of this photograph, present to the upper left and featuring only the house, lacks the utter hopelessness that Rothstein's full photo can generate. The famous photograph of Artelia Bendolph staring out the window of her cabin adds to Rothstein's characterization of Alabama blacks. The little girl's provides little in the way of hope but instead depicts a resolute determination to persevere. The newspaper advertisement next to her head shows a white woman holding a platter of food and contrasts the ability of national culture to displace local foodways with its inability to help the lives of the settlement-bound like Artelia (Brannan & Fleischhauer 39).

Photographer Arthur Siegel stated that pre-FSA documentary photographer Lewis Hine defined the documentary attitude when he remarked that "I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated" (qtd. in Stott 21). In Gee's Bend, Alabama, Rothstein and Stryker did just this--using the region's uniqueness to comment on just what in the American past they wished to see changed and what they wished to see preserved.

Intro Stryker and the FSA Documentary Photography as a Medium Local vs. National Blue Ridge Mountains Southern Florida Central Alabama Mississippi Delta Conclusion

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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: May 10, 1999