Are you following this Errol Morris investigation into the photography of Walker Evans and pals? A new installment, part 3 of 7, went up last night and it is BONKERS. Basically it is about alterations-suspected or proven or even wildly obvious, in retrospect-in 1930s documentary work of the FSA photographers (Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al). Essentially, much of what we view now as documentary-and what we see in our minds as the visuals of recent American history-was actually pretty close to propaganda.
This is James Curtis, the author of Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: F.S.A. Photography Reconsidered, in conversation with Morris.
John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” comes out in 1939. And Russell Lee comes up with an idea. He says to Stryker [the head of the F.S.A.], “Why don’t we try to create a series of photographs that could illustrate ‘Grapes of Wrath’?” And so, he goes to eastern Oklahoma – rather than to Steinbeck’s locations in western Oklahoma. And he finds a family and literally walks them through the early stages of the flight to California, including buying a loaf of bread from the storekeeper. And they felt that they were going to be able to sell these photographs to the publisher for an illustrated version of “Grapes of Wrath.” Unfortunately, Thomas Hart Benton, the artist, beat them to it. It’s his illustrations that are brought out in a new edition of “Grapes of Wrath.” It was propaganda.