The Great Depression as Documentary

The crisis in American agricultural capitalism and relations of the 1930’s and its spawning of liberal oriented photojournalism and experimental documentaries has been explored through a number of treatments.  The documentary form as a response to the crisis of capitalism was explored by Stott, (1973) as an intellectual evolution which integrated folkloric imagery and prevailing reformist tendencies in producing dramatic documentary photojournalist albums:  Lange, Bourke-White, in one style, and the moderated detachment of Walker Evans’ photographs as a more reserved and cautious form.  A number of comparative critical studies of An American Exodus have pointed out various technical, stylistic and positional tactics and strategies of the book.  William Stott (1973) argues that the book is a result of a compilation of field notes, begun in 1935, when Paul Taylor, a labor economist at the University of California Berkeley, and who had been working with the State of California’s Rural Rehabilitation Division, sought to impress upon the federal relief agencies the need to coordinate and provide organized camps and relief for migrant workers in the state.[i]  Stott uncritically accepts Taylor’s incorporation of captioning as accurate reflections or captures of original testimony and implied social, economic relations and material conditions.[ii]  Surprisingly Stott, avoids a critical reading of Taylor’s sociological portrayal, and instead agrees with Carey McWilliams’ 1940 review, in alluding to Taylor’s overuse of statistics and academicism.  Stott does acknowledge and note the folkloric use of quotes in the captions, but he fails to analyze why  the resort to folklore reflected the strategies of state patrimony sought by the documentary genre.  Expressions, such as “we’re starved, stalled and stranded,”  establish foundation for Taylor’s position as an elite arbiter and rationalist for federal intervention.   Stott’s analysis is also unaware of the compromise of the quote of the woman on page 101, stating, “If you die, you’re dead, -- that’s all.”  Paula Rabinowitz, (1994), counters with her own defense of Lange and Taylor, citing uncritically to their self-authenticating claim in the foreward to “adhere to the standards of documentary photography as we have conceived them.”[iii] 
The critique of captioning was first noted by Maren Stange  (1989), whose comparative study of documentary photography of the New Deal, examined the original Farm Security Administration (hereinafter “FSA”) caption cards, which disputes the claim to authenticity and accuracy made by Taylor and Lange.  The original quote attributed to the woman at page 101, “If you’re dead, you’re dead,”  was typed as an extended paragraph of commentary attributed to this woman as a relation of her life in a county, where she has failed to qualify for relief, and her reliance on her sister for supplemental support.[iv]     Stange also suggests Taylor’s unease with the results of New Deal modernization of farms, of which the TVA was representative, and the unquestioned aftermath of displacement of farmers.  Stange, fails however to offer a critique of the failings of  the various transformations of farming during this era and the government’s inconsistency and ambiguity.[v]  
Other attempts at explaining An American Exodus include Milton Meltzer, (1978) who offers the standard biography of Lange.[vi]   Others try to integrate it  as a product of liberal intellectual history, amid contemporary stylistic trends in social discourse, and among these the regional position of labor in the West, is offered by Ann Loftis (1998).[vii]    Loftis offers a chronology and comparison of stylistic influences to the critique of Taylor’s approach, suggesting that inferences in Taylor’s writings to climate and topography are influenced by Wesley Powell.   Taylor’s own apprehensions about his personal experiences with the failure with mixed farming in his native Iowa, led to a conciliatory acceptance of the need to relocate farmers, but stopped short of a total embrace of unchecked laissez faire agribusiness.  Taylor always seemed to prefer initially self-help societies as a mediatory position between extremist alternatives, and other relief measures as a temporary solution toward the eventual goal of reestablishing white migrant farmers as new property holders.     Loftis’s approach is similar to that of Kevin Starr, the official librarian of the State of California, whose treatment of Taylor and Lange’s work situates it as a struggle of intellectuals to rationalize and come to terms with the crisis as a hegemonic solution.[viii]
A useful feminist interpretation is offered by Judith Davidov (1998),  who interprets Lange as a medium through whose lens, the anonymous and unrepresented could express themselves.[ix]      Davidov thus recalls Rabinowitz’ emphasis on liberal intellectual intervention as an uncritical stance.  Davidov for instance, alludes to her associative treatment of Damaged Child, a photo of the abused child, as an allusion to President Roosevelt’s polio, a disease Lange had been exposed to as  a child.[x]  Despite these forays into a reinterpretation of body politics and imagery, Davidov, falls back on a biographical sketch to personalize the psychohistory of Lange’s personal formation.    Her discussion of  the image of Mrs. Florence Thompson, as the Migrant Mother, suggests this image is a product of a typology, of an echoed metaphor, necessary to create a responsive spectator who may recognize the coding in the image.[xi]   Davidov, in her discussion of An American Exodus, fails however to dwell evenly on the three regions division of the book.   By focusing on feminism and the body as essential component of analysis, Davidov ignores the substantive materialist beginnings of the Old South, and instead curiously begins her analysis with the discussion of the Midwest, and the Dust Bowl,  a region Taylor’s familiarity seemingly authenticates his ‘expertise.’[xii]  Unequipped with an understanding of the relative political economy and materialism of the regional basis of the book, Davidov must herself resort to a metaphor of national migrancy, and is only able to cursorily mention race as an implication of the book’s treatment.  On the other hand Davidov, correctly points out the tripartite invention of transformative narrative from Lange’s photos of “tractored-out” landscapes, treeless plains, and enforced mobility.[xiii]  Despite Davidov’s avoidance of discussing the relation between capitalist disenfranchisement, race and class or caste, her discussion of the representation of the “Woman of the High Plains,”  is insightful and useful, as with her suggestion of relating the beginning shot of the stuffed cotton bags, with this woman as a symbol of confederacy, and the concluding photo of Ma Burnham as a confederate grandmother (p. 258), all tied together by the implication of cotton. 
While offering the image of Filipino stooped laborers in the fields as an art historical reference to Millet’s  gleaners, Davidov fails however, to note the racial ascendancy implied in the caption of the photo of Filipino “gang workers” in the fields, which suggests that to “perform its stoop labor, California agriculture has drawn upon a long succession of races:  Chinese, Hindustani, Mexicans, Filipinos, Negroes, and now American whites.”  (1939:  133). This is the book’s only reference to Mexicans in the entire book, which notably does not include any image, the invisibility of their presence is maintained. This image is also relevant to keep in mind with the trend of pitting minority farm workers against whites as apparent in the following testimony from the La Follette Committee in December 1939:[xiv]  
Senator La Follette:  You testified previously, if I understood you, that it was the policy of the Earl Fruit Co. to hire local persons first?

Mr. Fuquay.:  It was.

….it was changed just before the pear-picking season of 1938.
Senator La Follette:  And what was the occasion of that change? 

Mr. Fuquay:  I had orders to hire Filipinos and Japs and Hindus, six crews of them ahead of the white people. 

The double page layout of pages 132 – 133, are also revealing to examine for their technical and rhetorical devices, comparing and contrasting, repeating and reiterating.   Contrast these photos form the Salinas valley with the Midcontinent.  The tractor laying furrows in the Salinas Valley, near King City, recalls to us the tractored landscapes of the Midcontinent, repeatedly shown on pages 73 and 74.  In the tractored furrows of  Texas Panel, we are met with captions, “Tractors replace not only mules, but people,”  followed by the subcaption of the second photo, “Abandoned house.”   A third photo in sequence is captioned, “the treeless landscape is strewn with empty houses.”   In the Midcontinent.  The furrows are diagonal or curving away from the viewer, as if to put the viewer at crosses with the fields.  We are not invited to proceed down these abondoned furrows.  The quality of the furrows are distinct from the King City furrows.  All of the shots are taken in either early morning or late afternoon, accentuating with shadowing the height of the furrows, shot from a low angle, the camera close to the ground to emphasize the rows of soil.  In the Texas furrows, the angular masses of furrows present themselves as walls, as massed trenches, perhaps faintly recalling the terror of Paul Taylor’s experience in the trenches of World War I, where he was gassed.  These furrows are desolate, devoid of life, a windswept barren land, vulnerable as a harbinger of the dustbowl.  The houses recede, uninhabited, devoid of life.  Dried weeds or stubbles of old grain crops sprout up here, there.  In the final shot of the sequence, the camera moves in toward the cluster of abondoned houses, but we are kept out by the frail wire fence, with its posts of bent dried tree limbs, reiterating the sense of death, decay, and even suggesting the very caption of ‘treeless landscape.”   There is another difference to the quality of these furrows.  The Midcontinent furrows are topped off with triangular points, to shed water, reinforcing however subtly the drought effects. 
In the California furrows, (p. 130) with its elevated shot of double rowed furrows set diagonally to the viewer, we are met with a caption, “industrialized agriculture has its fullest development in California.”   These furrows recede in a suggestion of vastness, even into infinity, unenclosed by private farm ownership or limited acreage.  Shadowing is not emphasized.  Along with the shot of the tractor laying out the double rows of furrows, flat topped with a small depression between the rows, ideal for lettuce or for double rows of berries, crops requiring hand labor, the limited shadowing suggests a high noon shot, of even lighting across the fields, deemphasizing the enclosures of the furrows.  The tractor comes straight toward us (132) laying the foundation of progress to set the material conditions of rebonding specialized labor, (133) to be furnished in legions of races, as in Taylor’s recitation of the “long succession of races.”    No effort is made to suggest the laborers (133) are skilled, that their clothing, a hat, a scarf, long sleeves, gloves, are fabrics of skilled knowledgeable workers,  or that their stooped backs test their physical limits to meet productivity forced by piece work rates of pay.   Nor are we informed how this cluster of four may be working in a cooperative fashion, each on separate furrows, according to each an individualized share of that furrow’s output, but keeping an order and relational cooperation between them.[xv]  Instead, Lange’s photo keeps their faces masked by their protective hats, their names anonymous, their position replaceable by the next wave of ethnically convenient labor.
Davidov also offers a discussion of Paul Taylor’s later recounting of how he and Lange laid out the photos, in which they planned the pairing of photos, “as an information of the current condition,”  and Davidov suggests as not a story like The Grapes of Wrath.[xvi]  I suggest on the contrary, that The Grapes of Wrath as earlier works of Steinbeck were very much in the minds of Taylor and Lange who shared Steinbeck’s racial interpretation of Mexicans, as in his derogatory treatment and the use of illustrations of drunken Mexicans in Tortilla Flats (1935), their invisibility along with the hiding of Filipinos behind the book of In Dubious Battle (1936) and their invisibility in  The Grapes of Wrath (1939).     The collaborative text of Steinbeck accompanying the photos of The Harvest Gypsies, (1936) similarly is a work focusing on white migrants.   While Taylor and Lange did not apparently have direct personal contact with Steinbeck until they approached him in late 1939 to write a forward for An American Exodus,  they certainly shared a number of contacts and friendships of the bourgeois intellectual milieu that was engaged in agricultural social problems of the 1930’s.  Davidov, following in the critical genre of Stott, Rabinow, and Stange, fails to critique the suggestive political economy of  the book’s conclusions or afterward in the chapter, “Directions.”  This omission is especially curious as it was noticed by several contemporary reviewers. [xvii]

By the time Taylor wrote An American Exodus, he had been involved in studying rural farm labor problems for over a decade.  It is revealing to compare the strategy of An American Exodus, in 1938 – 1940, with Roosevelt’s aims in 1931, wherein the strategy has reversed in its advocacy of an inevitable, almost evolutionary resettlement in the promised land of American agriculture, California, the promised land of An American Exodus.[xviii]

Beginning in 1935, when Lange’s photographs of the San Francisco general strike of 1934, were seen at an exhibition in Berkeley by Paul Taylor, the two authors engaged in a sporadic series of effort to combine pictorial representation and short narrative and captioning of the position of farm workers with the aim of providing a rationale for their controlled resettlement by combinations of state and voluntarist community agencies and associations.  It is instructive to note the purpose of their first work together, when Taylor persuaded Lange to accompany him and compile photographs of farm laborers for the California state relief agencies and self-help societies, projects Taylor had been at work on for several years along with his former student Clark Kerr.   Taylor had been interested in integrating photography into his own works since the late 1920’s.[xix] 

[i] See, William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America,  University of Chicago Press:  Chicago.  (1973)  p. 225.
[ii] For instance, Stott, Ibid. p. 226, claims Taylor, “let the camera and the words of those photographed take care of the concrete while he generalised, often in ways tangential to the theme.”
[iii] See Paula Rabinowitz.  They Must Be Represented.  Verso:  London.  (1996) p. 86.
[iv] On the problematic of Taylor and Lange’s captioning see, Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life:  Social Documentary Photography in America:  1890-1950.  Cambridge University Press:  New York  (1992) pp. 120-121.  The caption card is photostatically reproduced as figure 3.11.    For a textual reproduction of the FSA archived collection of Taylor and Lange’s  caption cards, see,  Howard M. Levin and Katherine Northrup, eds. Dorothea Lange:  Farm Secuirty Administration Photographs, 1935 – 1939.  2 Vols.  The Text-Fiche Press:   Glencoe Ill.  (1980). 
[v] See Stange Ibid. p. 123 and ff. 77, which lists a number of useful critical histories of New Deal farm policies. 
[vi] Milton Meltzer, Dorothea Lange:  A Photographer’s Life.  Farrar Strauss Giroux:  New York.  1978.
[vii] Ann Loftis, Witnesses to the Struggle:  Imaging the 1930’s California Labor Movement.  University of Nevada Press:  1998. 
[viii] See Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams:  The Great Depression in California.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1996.   Another liberal historian who follows Starr’s project on a national level, is T.H. Watkins, whose works include Righteous Pilgrim,  and The Hungry Years:  A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America,  Henry Holt.  (1999).
[ix] See Judith Fryer, Women’s Camera Work:  Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture.  Duke University Press: (1998)  p. 216.
[x] See Davidov, Ibid.  p. 55.
[xi] Davidov attributes this explanation of iconographic coding to John Tagg, Burden of Representation.
[xii] See Davidov, Ibid.  pp. 252-271.
[xiii]  See, Davidov, Ibid. p. 255.
[xiv] See, pp. 177556-17558 of Part 48, Marysville, Calif. Incident, May-July 1939 of the La Follette Committee Hearings, dated December 14, and December 15, 1939.   The testimony  reveals the witness’ own personal reluctance to keep this preferential hiring, and his own personal preference for hiring whites.  He states he was directed to hire ‘locals’ by the San Francisco office. 
[xv] For a discussion of  how Latino field workers develop techniques of cooperation and spatial orientation and sharing in picking fruit crops, see Miriam J. Wells, Strawberry Fields:  Politics, Class and Work in California Agriculture.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, (1996),  p. 142-152.
[xvi]  See Davidov, p. 270. Approaches to the study of Paul Taylor’s career and work, have also failed to adequately explore the psychoanalytic possiblities of the contradictions in his life and in his marriage to his wife, Dorothea Lange.  How may a marriage between a writer-politico and a photographer alter and manipulate the production of a photo-serial documentary on migrant labor.  

[xvii] See the reviews by Margaret Marshall in The Nation, January 20, 1940, and by William S. Hopkins, in The American Economic Review, June 1940, Vol. XXX, No. 2, pp. 384-386. 

[xviii] See Loftis, Ibid.  p.  113.  Loftis’s commentary on the presentation of a ‘deluge’ image of the arrival of farm workers as a strategy of the 1930’s is usfeully compared with the 1920’ migrations, in which Taylor was cognizant of migrations of farm workers to the West and California cotton farms from the Midwest.  The sense of crisis of the 1930’s altered the focus and emphasis of Taylor’s work.
[xix]   For a discussion of  Paul Taylor’s evolving use of photography, see Richard Steven Street, “Paul S. Taylor and the Origins of Documentary Photography in California in California, 1927-1934,”  History of Photography, 7, no. 4 (1983).   Taylor’s 1927 photograph of the cotton farm billboard is reproduced in Loftis, Ibid.

No comments:

Post a Comment