Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth

Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered, by James Curtis.

Throughout what follows, I will use the word "true" repeatedly. It is my usage, not Curtis's. My usage is deliberately vague, but I hope it captures some part of what the author was driving at.

The central thesis of the book might be summarized thus:

Documentary photography, and in particular the photography in the FSA archive, is not and should not be considered as literal truth. These images are a carefully constructed artifact designed to deliver a message or an impression, and to support specific ideas. Photographs by their nature are imbued with a sense of reality and truth. We believe them instinctively, and therefore tend to believe the impressions they lead us to, and the ideas they communicate. We must therefore exercise caution and a critical attitude when looking at them if we wish to not be led astray.

While Curtis does not describe the images in the FSA photography archive as "propaganda" he makes a pretty convincing case that they are. He shows that much of the work was produced with some kind of a "shooting script" in hand, and shows us that the results frequently match the shooting script. He
argues that the photographers working in the field selected their images to support either a shooting script, or their own esthetic.  The successful images were those which communicated a sharp message which the public was ready to receive.

The book begins with a chapter of background material which presents Roy Stryker, who ran the photography project, as a man with a record of using photographs to illustrate and bolster agendas. In this case, the agenda was that of of the Resettlement Agency, later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  The agenda was initially to show farmland as being misused and overworked, to justify the agency's policies of moving farmers off marginal land, and otherwise assisting farmers in dire circumstances. Clearly, the agency would be and indeed was well served by photographs illustrating dry farmland, poor people, desperate people. It is, Curtis argues, no accident that just such images were made, publicized, and placed in the archive. We know them well: Migrant Mother, Fleeing a Dust Storm, Evans's photographs from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", and so on.

The remaining chapters cover four of the FSA's photographers: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Russell Lee. The first two were not particularly willing to follow Stryker's shooting scripts, which latter two seem to have been more than willing to follow. All, Curtis claims, produced fine, iconic, even important images which are nonetheless not literally "true".

Evans and Lange are handled in essentially the same way. Curtis constructs fanciful and demonstrably wrong descriptions of their working process as they created several iconic images. He makes up silly ideas like Evans taking "test images" with his 8x10 camera, and then a few minutes later hitting on the "final image". Extracting a set of images from the FSA archive containing the image of interest, he proposes a shooting sequence which supports his imagined working process. These sequences often defy internal evidence (a clock, in once case!).

Morris's recent book, "Seeing is Believing", goes in to some of these details, and you can pick out more yourself pretty easily. All of this is entertaining and a little puzzling, but ultimately Curtis's argument succeeds with the small details. He points out that, when photographing people with an 8x10 camera, one gets posed images, there is simply no escaping it. He points out that Lange's iconic image of the "Migrant Mother" eliminates a great deal of the surrounding material, including some of the children. He reminds us that the negative was retouched. His point is really that Evans and Lange, in selecting what to put into the frame and what to leave out, are making important choices. These choices support the personal esthetics of the photographer, as well as any preconceptions and ideas the photographer has, and finally any ideas or impressions that the photographer wishes to communicate. These images are not "true" in the purest documentary sense, they are thoughtfully posed and arranged.

I wonder if Curtis is not deliberately playing the game he is accusing the photographers of. He presents, for instance, his reconstruction of how Evans shot some particular image as literal truth, completely unsupported by evidence.  Perhaps like a photograph it has the shape of literal truth but
is a false artifact illuminating a truth. In this case, he certainly succeeds. One may well reject his reconstruction, but one must realize that there was some thought process, some sequence of images, some ideas that led the photographer to the final image. All the important conclusions therefore
apply whether Curtis is literally correct or not.

The next two photographers are handled a little differently. Since these two men, Rothstein and Lee, were willing hands and followed shooting scripts well, Curtis is on somewhat firmer ground.  He can provide more background and can give us a fairly detailed notion of the scripts these men were following on various assignments.  He examines photographs produced on those assignments, and shows that they generally comply with the shooting scripts. There are one or two more flights of fancy on how one image or another might have been made, but these are less central and easier to ignore. Here we find more evidence, supported by citations, of what the photographers left out of frame, what subjects were left un-photographed, what events were staged or partially staged.  We find some discussion of the cultural influences on both the photographers and their boss, Roy Stryker.

The book can be read as a simple hatchet job, mostly on Lange, Evans, and Stryker, but I think this is too simple. Curtis seems to believe in the talent of the people, and the value of the photographs. He wants not to devalue the work, but to give us a more complete understanding of it, an understanding of it not as the pinnacle of some artificial idea of pure documentary, but as images bearing truthful symbols. The images, while not literally "true" are rich with symbols and ideas, important and in some sense "true" symbols and ideas, which the public was ready to see and embrace.

The book is well worth reading if you're at all interested in the FSA and the images produced by its photography project.  Curtis provides us with a wide array of loosely related material, biographical details and historical sketches of specific government programs. I found it interesting, as well, as an
exploration of how one might critically examine photographs taken in the documentary tradition. The book may be a little dated: I have taken the FSA photographs as naked propaganda for my entire adult life, which may well simply reflect the influence of Curtis's work on our society's perception of
these images. My attitude is roughly the one Curtis is promoting, at any rate.

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