Friday, November 16, 2018

Photographing Poverty

I am making a little project of reading the LIFE essays by Gordon Parks, the black photographer and writer who produced quite a few important studies of the situation of black Americans for that magazine. Most recently, I read through "A Harlem Family" from LIFE Magazine's March 8, 1968 issue. Google books, happily, seems to have all or most of LIFE available online. It's a bit of a hassle to read this Enormous Format magazine on a small screen, and anything printed across the gutter has to be mentally re-assembled, but we make do.

Gordon Parks was sent out with a couple other journalists after the race riots of 1967 to go figure out, and then explain to LIFE's readers, what the hell was going on in the ghettos. Parks found a black family willing to be his subjects, the Fontenelles, living in Harlem. Over a period of some weeks he spent time with the family daily, learning their habits, moods, the patterns of their lives. He photographed these things, after a little while, and wrote a rather moving essay to go with it.

The piece put me in mind more or less immediately of the assignment from Fortune Magazine, given to James Agee and Walker Evans, to go out and similarly study the Tenant Farmer of the American South, and to similarly explain it to that magazine's readers some 30 years before Parks did his project. Both mothers, tellingly, despair vocally about their inability to make their homes "pretty."

The similarities are almost startling. Both are in-depth studies, performed on a timescale of some weeks, of more or less a single family (in the case of Agee/Evans it's an extended family spread over three nuclear families, but in a very real way it's still one family), living in abject poverty. The results are both very very similar, and also substantially different.

First, the families themselves. In many ways the Burroughs family (the center of Agee's study) is much more abjectly poor than the Fontenelle family. Their clothing is far worse, they have as near as I can tell no cash money and no friends who have cash money (more on this in a moment). Death is always very near: it is normal that many of your children will die, a serious injury is likely to end in death as no medical care worthy of the name is available, every service you might want to use or item you might want to buy is miles away and mostly you walk. On the other hand, the Burroughs have ample, albeit bad, food. They have work, much of the year. They have, curiously, access to quite a bit of credit from their landlord. The Fontenelles, in contrast, have access to medical care (although I dare say it's expensive). They can get to government services, which may or may not help them. When Mr. Fontenelle is out of work, he probably has friends who are working, and who therefore have a little money. This in turn allows him to get drunk.

Both live in deplorable conditions, with rats and other vermin. Both live in profoundly inadequate housing, with actual holes in the walls.

The Fontenelles enjoy what can be viewed in a way as a luxury: Mr. Fontenelle can beat the hell out of his wife, who can then throw boiling water laced with sugar and honey on him, sending him to the hospital. The Burroughs must consume all their energy with work, at least in the summer, it is not clear that violent relations are even possible. Mrs. Burroughs has no honey, nor sugar, and would not waste sorghum so. If either were to become severely burned, the consequences would be catastrophic for the entire family, and likely the person with the burns would simply die. Mr. Fontenelle can get drunk, Mr. Burroughs cannot, no matter how much he would like to, because access to both whiskey and the cash to buy it are simply out of reach.

The truly common thread here, which is shared entirely with their modern counterparts who live otherwise in circumstances both the Fontenelles and the Burroughs would surely consider unimaginable luxury, is that all families in poverty are trapped. They live within a system that demands all that they have in order simply to maintain their tenuous grasp on their living situation. Screw up, outside of whatever the acceptable boundaries are, and down you go to a level of poverty that is unimaginably terrible to you, and possibly to your death fairly soon.

So there we have the thumbnail. Poverty has very little to do with what little luxuries you can or cannot afford, but with a state of mind that arises from the fact that you are trapped, that you are expending all your effort merely to avoid falling, all with little hope for advancement.

But what about the photography?

This is very interesting, it turns out!

Both Agee in his words, and Evans in his photos, are at great pains to ennoble their subjects. Agee doesn't like Mr. Burroughs, but nonetheless waxes lyrical about the beauty of the endlessly patched and fragile garments the man wears. He mentions how lovely the cornshuck hats made by one branch of the family are -- beautiful but indicative of a very low social status, and so despicable. Agee shows the labor as crushingly hard, but even so seems to find a sort of mythic beauty even in that. Evans photographs of the family are likewise ennobling, showing them as tall, strong, charming, handsome, animated, curious, thoughtful. Evans depicts the interiors of the houses as a series of sort of shrines and elegant still lifes.

One comes away from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not only appalled at the horrendous, crushing, poverty and the cruel system that inflicts it on these people, but also in a sense thrilled at the heroism and essential spirit of the people in the story.

In contrast, Gordon Parks work for LIFE does not ennoble the Fontenelles particularly at all. The pictures are dark, and ruthless in their cataloging of the depravity of the conditions in which the family lives. We see holes in the walls, we see rags and filth. We see Evans-like details, especially of the mother's inevitably fruitless efforts to make the home "pretty", but rather than Evans' reverential treatment we are shown the pitiable side of the business. We see huddled children, staring blankly, rather than the animated and curious faces of the children Evans photographed.

Interestingly, to compare Agee's writing and Parks' we might well conclude that the Fontenelle children are in reality far more engaged and animated than the Burroughs kids, but the pictures imply exactly the opposite story.

Insofar as Parks ennobles anyone, it is Mrs. Fontenelle who by his account is the only thing keeping this thing going at all. She is beaten, both in the literal sense, and in the sense of having lost, utterly, and of being exquisitely aware of that. And yet, she carries on, more or less because there isn't anything else to do. Agee suggests that, contrariwise, every member of the Burroughs' extended family carries on, beaten, because there isn't anything else to do. Some of the Fontenelles, one imagines, feel they might somehow have options, but none of the Burroughs do.

And so we have two stories, of two families. The family who is, in the particulars of living, objectively better off albeit just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted in a tone and manner than suggests a far worse situation. The earlier family, in most particulars objectively far poorer but again just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted with a tone and manner that makes them seem better off.

I find it fascinating how some things are reversed from reality in the reportage, and yet how the essential underlying reality of poverty is perfectly discernible in both cases.

Searching for explanations, one more or less immediately comes across some facts.

Parks grew up poor and, of course, black. He could more or less instantly identify with the Fontenelles, their story is his story. He escaped, as people occasionally do by some combination of good fortune, talent, and hard work. One could be forgiven for supposing that Parks displays his subjects without much nobility because he knows full well there is no nobility here. His sympathy seems curiously muted, but there you have it. These people are, for Parks, exquisitely real, as is their situation.

On the other side, both Agee and Evans are children of money. They are well educated, well off, and both quite definitely absolute snobs. The Burroughs family is something beyond their comprehension (in the same sense that it is beyond mine, and most likely beyond yours -- we can master and deplore the facts their story, but after some point we are unable to feel it and grasp it essentially, our empathy can carry us a ways, but not to the end of it.) It is reasonable to suppose, but unprovable, that they both chose to ennoble their subjects as a way of coping with the reality their noses were being rubbed in. Perhaps it was a way to find some sliver of good in what was so obviously unrelenting cruelty. Or maybe they were both just kind of effete idiots, prone to such blathering.

Anyways, there you have it. Perhaps by comparing these two things we can learn a little something about the condition of poverty, I don't know. I feel like I am a trifle wiser for it, perhaps.


  1. My journalism-trained friend tells me that they are taught that a story has to have an "angle". Maybe that's what we're seeing here. I can easily imagine that someone who was simply documenting those people's lives in non-journalistic context would proceed differently.

    The "angle" of ennobling poor people is kind of a cliché, isn't it, just like the ennobling of "savages". Cynical people (like me) would even say that it can be convenient to do so, part of larger marketing project. If you can convince them that they're noble, or guaranteed a place in heaven, then they're less likely to ask for a raise. Is that TOO cynical?

    A good friend of mine says that it is not possible to be cynical enough. I hope she's wrong, but am hard put to come up with a good counter-argument, especially these days.

  2. Have you read Jack London's People of the Abyss? Or Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London? They describe poverty so vividly it will make you question the need for photography.

    Interestingly there is a passage in down and out where Orwell recounts a true story of an aquaiacquain of his brutally beating and raping a prostitute in a room with a blood red ceiling - possiblity the inspiration for the famous red ceiling photograph..

    1. I have read the Orwell, but not the London, and I think you might be right. The more I think of it, the more I think Evans' pictures of the Burroughs are fairly dishonest, but Parks are also heavily slanted, and so in the end, can photography really DO anything here?