Documentary Photography as a Medium

As movie theaters continued to expand, the first picture magazines such as Life, Look, and Fortune sprung up, and even ballets and presidential addresses took on a documentary slant, the 1930s marked an age where documentary and the photograph grabbed a unique hold on the cultural consciousness of America. But what were the people to make of these photos? Were they, as Stryker, argued "truth," a frozen moment in time? (qtd. in Stott 14) Or were they, too, more manipulatable and manipulative, subject to many of the same biases as literature and painting? A look at the definition of documentary photography as a whole and its particular development in the thirties will begin to answer these questions. In his Documentary Expression in Thirties America, William Stott argues there are two types of documents. The first, which documents official information, has little cultural significance beyond an historical and intellectual level. The second more humanistic form of documentary, however, appeals to the emotions and hence garners an even greater power. "A document, when human," Stott states, "is the opposite of the official kind; it is not objective but thoroughly personal" (7). The photographs of the FSA fall securely in the second group and hence possess all the opportunities for interpretation and manipulation that any appeal to the emotions must feature.

In response to the question "do photographs tell the truth?" American sociologist Howard Becker illustrates the impossibility to answer simply "yes:"

In so far as the artistic intention interferes with the photographer's evidentiary use, it does so by affecting the selection and presentation of details, so that some things are not shown, some details are emphasized at the expense of others and thus suggest relationships and conclusions without actually giving good cause for believing them, and by presenting details in such a way (through manipulation of lighting or the style of printing, for instance) as to suggest one mood rather than another
Featherstone 43).

As head of the project and final reviewer of each negative, Stryker found no ethical problem in posing subjects or changing the surroundings in order to point out "a known social or economic problem" (Davis 17). And Dorothea Lange, his most famous FSA photographer, once went so far as to admit that she tried to capture not just an image but a mood. The other FSA photographers displayed a wide range of attitudes towards what their role was in the making of an image. Ben Shahn often shot poor farmers from above, refusing them much dignity and stressing the almost hopelessness of their plight. In shooting her famous migrant mother, Lange purposely removed the woman's husband and five of her seven children in what Allen F. Davis calls the projects constant desire "to conform to the dominant cultural values of the urban middle class" (vii-ix). Walker Evans was the most renown for his refusal to manipulate an image in any way and his repeated assertions that he subverted his art for the simple depiction of a moment. Still Evans brought his own prejudices and techniques to his work and because of this Davis argues Evans' was most dangerous because he helped "to perpetuate popular misconceptions that cameras do not lie and photographs are true" (23).

Floyd Burroughs, Walker Evans, Hale County, Alabama.
It is extremely difficult to come terms with how manipulatable a medium documentary photography is simply by addressing common prejudices; to really understood how malleable an image and a photography can be it is necessary to study particular photos. Evans' famous image of Floyd Burroughs (actually George Gudger) headlines this page and has come to represent an iconic image of the inextinguishable endurance--even in the face of disaster--of the southern pioneer. It is important to know, however, that this image, one that Stryker chose to circulate all throughout the country, is only one of dozens of Gudger and his family. A second one, presented to the right, shows Gudger displacing a much less comforting expression. It is not the same tattered and unshaven man millions of Americans have come to know through his hard, plaintive yet anxious stare but instead a more complex figure. His neat appearance and the wry look on his face make him appear cynical--almost laughing--a much more difficult stance to reconcile with a struggling farmer, especially a struggling farmer in need of government money. His face turned slightly downward almost hints at condescension. This photo, not surprisingly, was not chosen for the collection. Another photo of Evans captures Burroughs with his family, his arms around them in a classic pose of unity and happiness. "This George Gudger," Stott states, "needs no one's pity" (qtd. in Brannan & Fleischhauer 21). The same could be said of the George Gudger at the right. This image and the one of Gudger and his family, Lawrence W. Levine argues, comprise "an important part of the reality of the thirties that we can ignore only at great cost to our understanding of the self-images and the aspirations of people like the" Gudgers (Brannan & Fleischhauer 22).

Three photos of a Mississippi plantation owner, Walker Evans.

These pictures represent three images of a Clarksdale, Mississippi plantation owner taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. The one on the far right was the most famous of the FSA shots; the center marked a far less publicized member of the FSA file, and the right-most one was a cropped image of the left one used in Archibald MacLeish's famous photo-documentary and poem Land of the Free. The left image is a very powerful one, the plantation owner struck in a very dominating pose with his black workers looking on very much in the background. By its arrangement the photo insists that the supposedly 70-year-old dead system of slavery is in many ways very much alive--the image's existence marks a sad commentary on the life of poor southern blacks and on America. The cropped image on the right, however, completely removes this focus. Without the blacks in the background, the plantation owner becomes, like Floyd Burroughs, an image of the proud, indomitable American spirit. In what John Rogers Puckett calls "a blatant distortion of the image," MacLeish further violates the image when his poem on the facing page talks about Americans hard earned freedom (Puckett 51). "MacLeish finds a photograph symbolic of black oppression and changes it into a sympathetic portrait of rural America ruminating about freedom" (Puckett 53). The center image in the above collage at first boasts a remarkable similarity to the famous one on the left. The differences in the photos are miniscule, almost entirely composed of a slightly different photo angle and a minor downward turn of the plantation owner's head. The emotional response to the two pictures, however, is drastically different. With his head turned down, the owner looks sad, downtrodden, even defeated. The blacks in the background suddenly do not look as small and take on a greater role in the photograph. Not surprisingly, MacLeish did not use this photo to talk about the glory of American victories of freedom, nor did Stryker assign it a prominent place in the FSA collection.

Critic A.D. Coleman once remarked how unique it was that "there is a branch of photography concerned with justifying the medium's credibility" (qtd. Davis vii), and Stryker and his photographers strove throughout their careers to insist that the photos did represent some real truth. Still even Stryker had to admit that the photographer's prejudices often entered in to the creation of an image, making the photos part enduring cultural record and part propaganda. And in depicting the uniqueness of America's regions, photography once again saw the interplay of truth and propaganda.

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