Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
25

Our Legendary Fake History

ALARMAre 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.

25 Comments / Post A Comment

Spiers (#12)

"I don't know it, and I don't like it."

NinetyNine (#98)

I look forward to the searing expose by Morris on how Géricault wasn't actually on the raft from the Méduse.

iplaudius (#1,066)

I love how Curtis’ entire project originated with an observation by a student (on a now evidently notorious rocking chair), and yet he fails to credit that student by name. And it is a female student.

I was teaching at the University of Delaware and using a lot of slides of Walker Evans's photographs. I was just using them as illustrations of the look of the Depression. And I had a student come up and say, "The rocking chair in that photograph of the unemployed worker's cabin in West Virginia has been moved." And I said, "Well, how can you tell?" She said, "Because it's obviously in a non-functional location. If you rock back in that chair you will hit your head on the banister going up the stairs." And then I said, "Well, why would it have been moved?" And the obvious answer was, "Because there's no electricity in those houses. And Evans wanted to use natural light rather than taking a flash photograph on the inside."

bb (#295)

so? At least he doesn't just claim the insight for himself.

iplaudius (#1,066)

Don't worry, he's not going to nerd jail. It's just that stories like that make me suspicious. Particularly if the situation had been a graduate seminar, I would wonder whether the unnamed student participated in the research that followed or benefited by mentoring.

Professors take good ideas from students all the time. If the student is striving for an academic career, it's like the rich robbing the poor. So, graduate students, if you have any original ideas that may be iconoclastic or discipline-altering, don't share them with your professors, except in a form at least as developed as a dissertation prospectus (which you can register and put your name on). Otherwise, the professor may say "interesting," quietly take your idea and begin running with it, and then years later you will read about the research you should have developed in a paragraph like the one quoted above.

Fascinating stuff, but it sort of borders on bitchy instead of obsessive, mysterious and existential, as it ought to. You know who I miss right now? Sebold. He would have made a great book out of just the alarm clock question.

bb (#295)

I've read his book and in some ways it seems so "no shit, photographers set up shots." But if you know how much photo people worship Evans, it does seem pretty alarming (ha ha, no pun intended!). A lot of historians use these pictures as documentary evidence of life in the poor rural south, too, rather than understanding the complexity of what it meant to have those government photographers there in the first place.

NinetyNine (#98)

It's not like I live an a photography commune, but I've been near enough to ask: who really believed that Evans never composed shots (including moving items)? I've honestly never heard a photographer worry about that (meaning they assumed that was the case). If you are going down this road, then we should get all post-structuralist about what "documentation" means.

Agee messing with young girl about to get married: breakthrough in non-fiction writing.

Evans planting an alarm clock: betrayal?

bb (#295)

99: my understanding — admittedly, mostly from Curtis' book — is that Evans himself insisted that he did not set up photos. There is definitely still a "gotcha" feeling to the accusation, though.

Eh, so Curtis is saying Walker Evans was the Leibovitz of the 30s? I say so what. On top of that, many of the things Curtis has problems with seem to have been done for photographic reasons, ie let's move the mirror so the flash doesn't shine in it, or put the seat over there so it sits in the natural sunlight from the window.

Anyway…I just have a huge problem with the whole school of thought that nothing should be touched in a scene otherwise it's somehow corrupted. Curtis makes his point clear: "And I wanted students to understand that pictures are evidence." But even an untouched scene can be seen as propaganda by simply focusing on a different object or changing your perspective.

I would say these are at most romanticized versions of their reality, and that anything with the right caption can be propaganda!

"That's not how I remember it."

Bittersweet (#765)

"I just have a huge problem with the whole school of thought that nothing should be touched in a scene otherwise it’s somehow corrupted."

Wonder what that school would say about today's ridiculous photoshopping?

HiredGoons (#603)

What? Next you're going to tell me those Victorian photographs of mediums vomiting ectoplasm are fakes.

Get outta town!

hockeymom (#143)

Shut up, College.

So, uh, photos are a representation of something, and not the thing itself? Shocking!

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

I think I preferred it when history was written by the winners, as opposed to the photographers.

NinaHagen (#131)

Mr. "I invented Cheesy Re-enactments in Documentary" has some nerve.

Fifi (#1,639)

Recently I drove through the length of Northern Oklahoma, and Eastern Oklahoma, called Green Country, is very hilly and green, but Western Oklahoma is absolutely flat, sand-colored, and the only tree you will see is right next to the lone house on the horizon. There is really no comparison.

<3 Terry Richardson.

shutup bitch (#1,994)

I actually thought this was incredibly boring.

Flashman (#418)

Whatever next?
Did Robert Capa shoot that Spanish dude himself?

I work in photography industry and always read these things but no one else at my company does. They don't really care or understand.

This has ruined the closing credits of Dogville for me.

Wait, no, they're still great. Unless those Americans were actually old?!?!?!?!?!

TH42 (#1,939)

This is so not BONKERS. Unless BONKERS means "incredibly boring and amounting to very little."

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