Thursday, May 23, 2019

How History is Made

There is, it turns out, a little cottage industry in trying to discredit the FSA photographers. Some of it they earned, and other attempts are utter nonsense. I've gone over the "scholarly" work incorrectly accusing Walker Evans of planting an alarm clock in a sharecropper cabin. On the other hand, Arthur Rothstein surely did move a cow skull.

Well, it turns out that there is another scribble of history being gently pushed by minor players out there, this one more vague.

In the 1930s is was not uncommon for the mentally disabled to be housed in facilities for housing them, and also for them to be sterilized. There is a deep and ugly story here, and from our modern viewpoint there is nothing good about this programs. No argument from me, here. Such a program was evidently pursued with gusto in Virgina.

A filmmaker named Richard Robinson at some point set out to make a film about Arthur Rothstein's First Assignment, and that is the title of his film. I have not seen it, but I have read a moderate amount of followon material that resulted from it. In the film, Robinson wants to talk about Rothstein's First Assignment, and mistakenly gets the idea that it is a trip to the Shenandoah Mountains to document people being displaced from their homes in order to make way for the Shenandoah National Park that's being put in.

A couple minor quibbles. In the trailer, the narrator (Robinson?) cannot even pronounce Rothstein right, pronouncing it "steen." In the second place, he's taking the notion that this is the First Assignment from an interview where Rothstein appears to be mis-remembering. The FSA archive contains photographs by Rothstein from some months prior to this trip. Rothstein appears to have simply muddled up the timeline. Neither of these things are a big deal, but they speak to a degree of sloppiness.

ETA: It's possible that Rothstein's name was in fact pronounced "steen" although I am unable to locate a recording of the man himself pronouncing his own name.

This is not a carefully made film. This is not a researcher who visited the Library of Congress to check primary sources, this is a guy who wants to make a movie and thinks he's stumbled on to something.

Now, it happens that on this trip Rothstein took some photos (arguably "a few") of some people, some of whom (arguably "two") were mentally disabled. When the community was "resettled" the mentally disabled ones were stuffed into the facilties, and sterilized. Ugh. That's awful.

Where Robinson, and other people (notably Elizabeth Catte, an author and historian), run in to trouble is in trying to paint Rothstein with this eugenics brush.

Was Rothstein just some government schlub taking photos per the directions of his boss, Roy Stryker, to justify plans to resettle (i.e. evict) these people? Yep. He was working for, after all, the Resettlement Administration, which only later would be renamed the Farm Services Administration. The archive is clear, he's out there hanging out in one small area of the region, photographing everything around him. Photographing the whole thing is too much, so he picks out a good picturesque sample, with decoratively poor people who look like they need some government assisstance, and he photographs them, their stuff, their houses, their land, and so on.

That is verifiable ground truth. You can search the FSA Archive for "shenandoah rothstein" and look for yourself. Compare with the text of this article in TIME, by Robinson about his film.

There was also a very disturbing narrative that seemed to guide Rothstein in his work.

I dunno about you, but I ain't seeing a disturbing eugenics narrative in those pictures. It's 280ish pictures of random, albeit picturesque, shit.

What the modern day historians would like to do is to insinuate that somehow Rothstein was complicit in a program of eugenics. How consciously he was involved they are vague on, what exactly he might have done they are vague on. They refer to captions Rothstein provided in which he refers to a boy as a "half-wit" (missing the second caption in which he refers to a young woman of 16 as having "the mentality of a child of seven.") There are another couple captions about how many children women have had. This is, apparently "editorializing" and "focussing on" according to Catte. The other 250-odd photos Rothstein took are ignored.

What makes this particularly fascinating is that the year is 1935, and Rothstein is a Jew from New York. This is not to suggest that he could not possibly be a eugenicist, but it certainly makes the territory a bit fraught. Robinson, Catte, and I dare say others, simply wade into the without a second thought.

This is also not to suggest that Rothstein was most assuredly not involved or complicit. We do not know his heart, we can only guess based on the facts we can verify.

The most likely scenario was that he was just a 20-21 year old New York Jew, over-educated, sent out to do what he and all the other photographers for the FSA did: justify the government program he worked for (resettlement) and document America if he had some spare time. They all did it, over and over. Anyone with any experience in the FSA archive will instantly recognize the Shenandoah Valley photos as completely typical.

I find the whole process sort of nauseating. I can see Rothstein being painted as a scumbag, bit by bit, before my eyes. Errol Morris and James Curtis reported in detail, in Official Scholarly Books, on how Rothstein moved a cow skull, and how his pictures were misused by the press. Now Robinson and Catte are reporting that his pictures were, again, used in the press, apparently to justify institutionalization and sterilization, and are insinuating that Rothstein had something to do with it.

I have no particular love for Rothstein, and he is dead and buried by now, but he seems to have been a basically harmless drone, at any rate as harmless as any government man with a camera can be. I don't think he deserves this, and, more to the point, we as a culture deserve better history.


  1. Meal ticket sumpin sumpin.

    Me, I always liked Shelby Lee Adams' photographs, even though I don't know him or his methods and motivations (and I don't actually care) -- there really are people and places like that. How do I know this? Not by looking at picture books.

    1. I don’t know if I’m still banned or not. I would hope that the conclusion of our little spat would let us be friends. Either way, this is a personal message and I hope you’ll post it-

      A few years back, I took a seminar on the “Environmental Portrait” led by Shelby Lee Adams and hosted by the International Center for Photography in New York. Shelby was an an absolute delight: engaging, energetic, enthusiastic. After class one day, over drinks, I learned about his personal history and his relationship with his subjects.

      Shelby is from Hazard, Kentucky, which he described as a world away from the “mountain folk” that he photographs. He made growing up in Hazard sound like he was born on Park Avenue and summered in East Hampton. I’ve never been to Hazard but I’m guessing that he has more in common with his subjects than he’s willing to admit.

      His relationship with the mountain people is folk is deep, often running through generations. He knows those people; knows when a baby is born, knows when somebody dies. He respects them and they respect him. For example, the subjects often suggest pictures and poses. He gives them copies of his pictures and his books, which the mountain folk are proud to display. The idea that he’s “eugenic framing,” or disrespecting his subjects in any way is ludicrous.

      Note: I should have known, but that casual shot of a guy sitting on his front porch is meticulously arranged and lit. Adams is a nut about lighting. Most of his pictures have five or six or seven separate light sources. I don’t see it, but I guess that’s the point.

    2. Yeah, I checked out his retro-look web site, which pretty much confirms your impressions.

      You know, he probably does bring whatever cultural baggage but I'm pretty sure what he's not doing is exaggerating or distorting the reality in order to exploit and/or mock his subjects.

      For anyone to publicly accuse him on social media of all places of 'trafficking' in some sordid business (which is exactly what the word implies) is, well, she resembles that.

      I just want to reiterate that I have personally set eyes on people and places that are 'very like' (if you will) and in some cases somewhat close geographical proximity, as in next state over, to his subjects. They really do look like how he "frames" them, full stop. Good on him.

    3. I think the point is not that Shelby's photographs are not truthful, but rather that they tell only a portion of the truth and not the flattering portion.

    4. For that you have your Annie Leibovitzes.

  2. Why Shelby Lee Adams? you may well ask...

    "one of the most highly trafficked modern image-makers in Appalachia, Shelby Lee Adams, uses classic eugenic framing" -- Elizabeth Catte

    "Trafficked" WTF.

    1. Well, she ain't wrong. The words are all loaded up, but the denotations are correct.

    2. You're right, it is an industry -- I just googled "eugenic framing" Who knew?

  3. You take pains to avoid calling the places what they were labeled in those days: Insane Asylums.
    It is not PC now but that is what they were called by most, from those in charge to the people who lived in the area.

    1. No pains at all, its just that there are actually a bunch of different kinds of facilities and they all had different names at different times.

      "The Colony" in Virginia is relevant here, it was established to house and maintain "epileptics and the feebleminded." It's possible that some people referred to it as an Insane Asylum, but it was not. It was specifically set up to house the not-insane somewhere apart from in the insane.

      And so on.