Commentary in American Photography

By David Portz

Observations is the thirty-fifth among the Untitled series, a group of books published by the Friends of Photography and distributed to its members at the rate of four a year. The series has included many monographs and picture-laden commentary, and only rarely volumes that are primarily text, such as this one. Observations is a collection of nine essays on the development of American documentary photography, written by noted art historians and critics. While three of these essays deal with theoretical matters, the majority are devoted to observations on photographers who have shaped documentary photography as a tool for social charge and as an art. Photographers treated include Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Levitt, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and Larry Burrow’s death in the Vietnam War.
Beaumont Newhall’s essay, placed first in the book, suggests the documentary photography is distinguished from other photography because it is concerned with the human condition and because it provides commentary, if not in the picture itself, then through accompanying text. Mr. Newhall’s attribution of humanistic intentions to documentaries is juxtaposed with the second essay, by Bill Jay, after reading over 100 novels containing photographers as characters, seeks to confirm, a la Susan Sontag, that photography is particularly conceived as an “aggressive/sexual act.” After proving this to his own satisfaction, Mr. Jay closes his essay by suggesting with quoted authority, that in reality the creation of any work of art is closely similar to the commission of a violent crime. Then he wonders whether the act of photography is especially violent.

Maria Morris Hambourg describes Atget as everything to everybody a surrealist for the surrealists, a free art man for the aesthetes and for Walker Evans, the photographer who foretold the documentary uses of photography. Ms. Hambourg finds that Evans and his contemporaries emulated Atget not only for his “clinical,” straightforward style, but for his “principled stance” of “uncontrived honesty” toward the subjects he photographed a moralistic intention to set the world down right.

Anne W. Tucker follows with a well-tailored discussion of four depression era photographers and the way they selected and presented their photographs to function as sociopolitical facts. Dorothea Large is credited by Ms. Tucker with being most faithful to the goal of effecting social charge. Large was careful to collaborate with a social scientist and provide factual comment with her photographs. Paul Strand, while having similar intentions, allowed himself to be distracted from his social message by attention to formal beauty and craftsmanship Strand used “the beauty of the point, as much as if not more than emotional engagement with the subject… [to make] the viewer acknowledge its importance.” Ms. Tucker places Walker Evans, who never strove to be a social protest artist, as the most extreme among the four in giving priority to art over politics. The formal order and “ironic clarity” which characterized Evan’s photos, however, gave them “that basic directness and bleakness echoing perfectly the mood of the time.”

At another extreme among these documentarians, Ms. Tucker places Margaret Bourke-White, who dramatized and rearranged the subjects of her photos for magazine viewing. Her agenda for dramatic and commercially viable photographs led her emulate competing and contradictory facts from her pictures, creating instead easily read appeals to her viewers’ emotions. Bourke-White also monkeyed with captions and quotes, and hence lost the credence of the more respected documentarians of her time.

Alan Trachtenberg reexamines the photographs in Walker Evans’ book, American Photographs, in order to determine what concept of America is contained there. Following the book’s publication in 1938 and according to Mr. Trachtenberg, even to the present observers have considered the photographs an inventory of American reality circa the 1930s. Mr. Trachtenberg concludes from his examination of the first five photographs of the book that Evans reinvented an America with a particular history and culture represented by emblems such as autos, racism, patriotism, and war. Evans consciously showed the craft of documentary photography being used to gather and save the constitute parts of a fictive nation.

The most stimulating essays are those like the next three by Kazloff, Johnson, and Johnstone, which chart careers and discuss the qualities of specific works. Max Kazloff considers Helen Lewitt’s A Way of Seeing to be exemplary in the tradition of street photography. The book contains pictures taken in New York City ethnic neighborhoods during the heat of summer, when people gathered outside. The recurrent depiction of people touching enabled Ms. Levitt to shape from disparate street events a book of resonating kinships. Kazloff praises Levitt’s use of spaces in the photograph to “carry an empathetic charge”: for example, a picture of children playing communicates their total absorption in the game. Through the pictures have a mid-1940s chronology, their “emotional time-zone” is capable of extending even to the present day. Among the achievements of the book as a documentary work, it gathered external gestures that attached human value to an interior life, the psychological and emotional interrelationships of people.

William S. Johnson treats two strivers of the 1950s, W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank, who each struck off from the homogenized reality of picture magazines to attempt to articulate a more realistic personal vision. Robert Frank completed his attempt with the book The Americans, which showed the underside of American institutions and society and yet projected his subjects’ resistance, endurance, and faith. Eugene Smith, by contrast, aspired to deliver a documentary work on Pittsburg that would capture all the city’s aspects and effect a revolution in photojournalistic realism as a failure; his work was never published in its entirety nor did it achieve perfection in his eyes. Nevertheless Johnson credits both Frank and Smith with opening the way for other photojournalists to commit themselves to projects of major scope.

Larry Burrows, the last photographer specifically discussed in Observations, is praised by Mark Johnstone for his commitment to portraying the Vietnamese people. Many of his photographs about their occupations and customs were never seen in Life or other magazines in which Burrows’ war photographs appeared. Johnstone analyzes Burrows’ use of color photographs and techniques of composition to awaken conscience in his viewers, by subtly disturbing their aesthetic sensibilities. By focusing on individuals affected by the war, Burrows also contributed to the evolution of documentary techniques.

Estelle Jussim, relying greatly on the prior work of Jacques Ellul, calls “pre-propaganda” that photographic information which merely forms a pool of data in the mind. The pre-propaganda lurks in the conscious and subconscious mind of its recipient, confirming or contradicting that person’s preconceptions. To Jussim, propaganda is that information which produces action by the receiver, the final convincing photograph which relies so heavily on the correlating pre-propaganda because that is important too.

There were not too many surprises found in these essays, but many are excellent reading which stimulate reexamination of documentary work. I would note the incredible strength retained by Walker Evans’ dicta retain incredible strength. Perhaps for this reason Mr. Trachtenberg thinks he is shaking a very big tree. But he isn’t Ms. Jussim is a disciple of someone else’s word games. If I were Mr. Jay, I would spend my time at something else. And I thank Mr. Kazloff for his very fine writing.