Relevant in this context at that time but we shouldn’t believe that ‘documentary photography’ was objective.
This image declares its meaning in relation to a specific set of visual strategies so that it has a larger symbolic rle and meaning. The subject becomes iconic and can speak for a universal condition.
Walker Evans is obsessed with things, so that objects are photographed as icons of lost times. Depicting the neatness, thriftiness and ingenuity of people living simply, and making the most of their environment. Yet the photo is not sentimental – it is just artful in the way it documents what the photographer found worthy to record. Relate to current project.
Evans was able to capture the struggles of daily life in something as simple as a towel hanging. Walker Evans documented the plight of Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression, alongside the prose of James Agee. Initiated as an assignment from Fortune magazine as an article about poverty in the South, the project was never published by Fortune, but was instead realized in book form in 1941 called ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’. Contemporary critics were struck by the power of Evans’s portraits, which convey the simple dignity of the families portrayed. Evans' photographs and Agee's text detailing the duo's stay with three white tenant families in southern Alabama during the Great Depression were published as the groundbreaking book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Its detailed account of three farming families paints a deeply moving portrait of rural poverty. In 1938, Evans also took his first photographs in the New York subway with a camera hidden in his coat. These would be collected in book form in 1966 under the title Many are Called . In 1938 and 1939, Evans worked with and mentored Helen Levitt.
In the process of producing images that met the FSA’s goal - alerting America's increasingly urban society to the condition of the rural poor in the midst of the Depression - Evans was able to describe the stuation with such simplicity and certainty that the result seems an unchallengeable fact untainted by opinion . His photographs of shopfronts, barbershops, and rural homes are rich in details of daily life and, at times, of desperate need. Aims to present the nations identity through a vision cast within American myth, but finds a series of different Americas that lack coherence and continuity. Wrote an accompanying book “America Photographs’ 1938 In the context of Evan’s images of America, this image is daunting and depressive. The houses to the right are archetypal Hopper, although the scene is overwhelmingly industrial and urban. The photograph is given substance by the white cross. This is an image that very much presents the death of American culture.
The fractured vision by Walker Evans of America that ‘American Photographs’ delivered made it a radical text and led the way for its later equivalent by the Swiss born photographer Robert Frank. America and the Soviet Union were on a collision course to see who could launch the world ’ s first satellite into space and there was widespread belief that American Communists were conducting atomic espionage for the Soviet Union. It was at the height of the cold war -- the conviction of Alger Hiss in 1948, the 1950-54 rise and fall of Senator Joe McCarthy, and the June ’ 54 executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- fueling paranoia and na ï ve racism and broadening the gap between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and leaders and followers. Frank based what was to become “ The Americans ” on a series of largely “ pointless ” journeys across the country in the search for an unpolished, headlong look at the American cultural terrain. Frank invited Jack Kerouac to write the introduction to his book. Both men shared the belief that U.S. power had an often corrupting influence; the most important political aim of the “ Beat ” movement was to change the country spiritually and culturally. Kerouac ’ s “ true-story novels ” and Frank ’ s photographs which were helped to name that discontent. Frank ’ s work looked at the systems of control from the corporate, political, religious, academic, consumerist and family cultures at the time. During this two year period, he produced a narrative that revealed a dark, homogenized conformist America, with a predictable sameness that offered neither solution nor solace. This image is seedy, grey, the people are isolated and alienated. The flag eclipses the wall and figures but the flag is unchanging suggesting the country’s inner condition.
The images are full of traditional American icons: the flag, the road, former presidents, fast food, television, diners, juke boxes… the symbolic paraphernalia of American identity, especially in the post war period. Frank ’ s work, like Evans ’ s, focuses in on the “ ordinary ” , but the landscape has changed. Plastic and chrome appear where wide-plank wood and steel had been. Jukeboxes mediate on top of drugstore lunch counters and people scowl as they are being photographed Frank took the camera off the tripod and carried it around his neck or hidden in his jacket and squeezed off photographs on the run and from the hip. The formal eloquence of Evans ’ s large format images were replaced by the gritty, rough-and-ready style of a street photographer working in a spontaneous, apparently casual style. His small Leica was often prefocused in the 5-6 foot range so he could steal a shot off before being noticed Frank was not working for the Farm Security Administration or “ Fortune ” magazine or “ Harper ’ s Bazaar ” or “ Life ” for that matter. He had his own agenda. In the tradition of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, Frank ’ s camera was a weapon against cultural and political conservatives and he saw it serve as an important avenue for expressing himself politically. The little vitality he recorded came from America ’ s sub-cultures and counter-cultures and no doubt he was on a mission to persuade and possibly change what he felt were the narrow alternatives offered by the establishment ’ s culture. No one wanted to publish his images in any magazine and thus ended that particular chapter in his life. Editors felt his images were scratchy, grainy, sometimes out-of-focus and depressive; his bleak collections of slices of small-town America caught with its racist, homophobic pants down was the antithesis of a hungry public ’ s voracious need for pictures of “ celebrated people ” and “ newsworthy events ” . Critics called the images sick, joyless, dishonest, sad and neurotic.
Incidentally, while I was researching the conditions surrounding the origins and politics behind “ the Beats ” , the early and mid-50s was starting to look a lot like what ’ s going on today. America ’ s renewed emphasis on patriotism and increased vigilance since 9/11 with the “ spreading of Democracy ” and the frequent mentioning of the U.S. “ Imperialist stance ” is eerily resonant. Could this have something to do with the increase in prices of Frank ’ s very politically edgy take on America as we approach the 50th anniversary of its execution? (Brian Appel, Artcritical.com, 2005)
The work of Robert Frank greatly influenced two key photographers of the sixties. Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Both show a sympathy for the imperfections and frailties of society. The common place is worth looking at but they believed it should be looked at with the minimum of analysis. Lee Friedlander is deliberately difficut to read. He documents a series of random events ad images which fail to cohere. He distorts the world we take for granted.
In a series of photographs made in the 1960's, photographer Lee Friedlander captured the TV's images. In these works the TV frames a face, an eye, or an expression. It becomes the strongest source of light in a darkened room. It becomes the subject of these works. Although Friedlander's TV images reflect a certain period in American history, their message is timeless. The TV is now omnipresent. The faces speak out. They are the all knowing, all powerful talking heads. They report the news, the weather, a tragedy--or they entertain. In Friedlander's works he captures only a moment of the action but it is enough to set the mood. The TVs are surrounded by darkness. We focus on the details: the rabbit ear antennae, the coat thrown over the door, the candle reflected in the mirror, the chair, or the table to the TV's side. We are drawn to the reflected image. In Friedlander's TV images the people are absent. The human element is represented by the image on the screen.
Like the TV photographs, Friedlander's self portraits also depict heads. In these images however, the head is Friedlander's own; and usually appears as a shadow. It emerges from the background or fuses with nature or is even reflected to infinity in a mirror or store window. He breaks up the photographic surface to create new and difficult relationships. The process of looking is made difficult. His shadow or reflection makes him a more of symbolic presence.
Winogrand's subject was America. He documented the city and the urban landscape, concentrating on its unusual people and capturing odd juxtapositions of animate and inanimate objects. Winogrand began photographing in New York, doing commercial work. He was inspired by Walker Evans' 1955 book American Photographs and for the first time realized that photographs could communicate something special and unique. Impressed by not only Evans, but also by Robert Frank, whose book The Americans also came out in 1955, Winogrand emulated their intelligent use of the photographic medium. And immediately set out to carve his own niche as an imagemaker who participated in, as well as documented contemporary life. Winogrand made the city, the zoo, the airport, and the rodeo his home, and spent endless hours photographing there. A photographer of this sort is a wanderer, constantly roaming the globe, clicking the shutter wherever he went.
in 1975 he published "Women are Beautiful" . For Women are Beautiful Winogrand photographed women on the streets of New York. He pictured them going about their business, unaware that they were being photographed. The women pictured are determined and fierce, and not necessarily feminine or beautiful. The pictures seem to be less about a particular subject than where the subject lies in space and how the light falls to illuminate them and their surroundings.
Another key photographer in this group of key photographers was Diane Arbus. The subject matter of her work that gripped the photographic word of the mid-sixties.Here, documentary photography shifted to the personal. They are frank, confidential, privately motivated images of a section of America. The fact that her images looked like snap shots was significant. It signified integrity, spontaneity. Dwarfs, transvestites, nudists, female impersonators and strippers seemed to make Arbus’ themes appear to be alienation, deformity, exotic sexuality and open insanity This is heightened by the full frontal flash and uncompromisingly close stance. Even when she photographed middle (normal) America the individuals were renderred bizarre.
Conclusion Focus has been to see how the so called document of a moment can be used to suggest something more subjective. There are techniques and comments here which would have us believe that the images are objective ‘snap shots’ of the world around us but the other information we can gather from looking at contact sheets for example or by analysing images tells a different story. We’ve also seen how photographing people has become an important contributing factor to documenting an environment, time or issue but it’s how they are photographed by the photographer which has greater significance and affects the meaning of the image.
“One of the favoured words in the photographicliterature of today is ‘documentary’”(Edward Steichen 1938)