Category Archives: Project 3 : People surveys

Research point :The FSA Project

+ Read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis.
Core resources:MakingSense.pdf

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers , within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this ? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects ?

Visit the FSA online gallery on the Library of Congress website and refer to their FSA catalogue if necessary :

Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed to deal with the effects of the Great Depression. Tenant farmers had been adversely affected by the recession and were facing great hardships .The Resettlement Administration , later renamed the Farm Security Administration , was set up in 1935 as part of the bureaucracy aimed at resettling stricken rural workers. Walker Evans , Dorothea Lange , Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks were amongst about 20 photographers hired by Roy Stryker to obtain evidence of how the Depression was effecting the rural population. Around 170,000 images were taken.

The photographic evidence was essential to help gain public support for the New Deal legislation and “Stryker once bragged about his ability to shape views of the depression” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 281) thus revealing an obvious political agenda . Furthermore the photographers “were government employees , subject to a wide range of political pressures” (Jeffrey , 1981 , pg. 169). As head of the Historical Department Stryker additionally “set about formulating the work of the FSA . He set an official documentary style , held briefings and developed shooting scripts for assignments” (Dickie , 2009 , pg. 48).” Additionally “the work of the FSA photographers was freely available to any publisher who wanted to use it” (Badger, 2007, p.g 72) the images were seen in illustrated magazines , the press and Department of Agriculture brochures and portrayed “ a grim picture of conditions” (Jeffrey , 1981 , pg. 167).

Walker Evans had little time for “Stryker’s assignment guidelines” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 282) causing frequent clashes between the two. Influenced by Atget his intricate and symbolic images of streets, signs , barber shops and cluttered rooms are full of the detail of everyday life but “ unlike the Surrealist photographers ,who found Atget’s work full of mystery and the uncanny , Evans located there a reserved and courtly melancholy about the transitions of modern life” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 282). In 1936 Evans , on leave from the FSA and accompanied by writer James Agee , travelled to the Deep South on an investigative assignment for Fortune Magazine. The magazine never used the project images but they were published in 1941 as a book Let us Now Praise Famous Men .

An iconic image of Allie Mai Burroughs , the wife of a debt ridden share cropper , prematurely aged at just 27 years epitomised the plight of the dispossessed. One of four frames taken by Evans this particular one shows a non-smiling “ irritated Allie Mae , a troubled victim of both the Depression and the camera’s burrowing eye” (htpp:// Interestingly American Photographs , published in 1938 , included one of the other images taken by Evans showing a more agreeable Allie Mae , which “thinly disguised as ‘Annie Mae Gudger’ in the text , exemplified his approach to picture making” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 282). Manipulation comes in many guises and Evan’s choice was simply one all photographers make in order to create meaning and context. I am sure Evans was fully aware of the connotations of each image and used them accordingly to what was needed to be conveyed but was this exploitation and did Evan’s really take advantage of the Burroughs family misfortune? I find that a difficult question to answer.

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Allie Mai Burroughs . Walker Evans

Dorothea Lange was already a committed documentarian of social inequalities when she joined the FSA photography team. Her famous image Migrant Motheris so powerful that it has had a a life of its own , transcending the documentary to mean whatever anyone looking at it wants it to mean” (Badger, 2007, p.g 77) . Lange herself felt the image was too impassioned and would be regarded as piece of propaganda , ironically it was just the sort of image the FSA needed to convince the public to fully support its measures. Furthermore both she and Stryker ” believed that photographs could bring about change” ( Dickie , 2009 , p.g 43) . Lange took six frames of her subject , Florence Owens Thompson , “ moving in closer all the time , until she focused only upon the mother’s face and arms , with the two children moving their heads away” (Badger ,2007 , p.g 77) but “only this particular picture caught the exact moment that kindles the emotional impact ” (Stepan, 2015 p.g 70) . The image , which was also re-touched to remove a flaw, became an iconic symbol of poverty and powerlessness but “though powerful , Migrant Mother is not typical of Lange’s work” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 283) and I do not believe Lange deliberately set out to exploit her subject . However “the photo Migrant Mother , with its obvious symbolic dimension , stands over and apart from her , is not her , has an independent life history” (Bolton, 1992,p.g 315) , the image as an icon gaining greater significance than Thompson as an individual.

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Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange

Russell Lee travelled to Iowa to document stricken sharecroppers. It is unusual for documentary photographers to just take one frame and the FSA required their photographers to hand over all their assignment pictures. Lee’s definitive image Christmas Dinner in Iowa was carefully planned with small children gathered around a table and an empty place. An emotive and powerful scene. Lee , recalling this time there years later claimed the farmer , Earl Pauley , was widowed. However the FSA records also contain images taken by Lee of Pauley’s wife ,very much alive , “ this visual evidence offers a much more reliable guide to the photographer’s original intent than the artist’s recollections recorded decades after the fact ” ( Curtis . p.g 13 ). Lee , as an FSA photographer , needed touching and influential images , which he obtained by directing scenes “that were conceived almost as a tableaux” (Jeffrey ,1997,p.g 264) Interestingly not all of the FSA photographs were recorded in B&W , Lee “used Kodachrome to photograph in Pie Town , New Mexico , a rural small town selected by Roy Stryker and Lee because they saw it as exemplifying frontier virtues , like self-reliance” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 285).

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Arthur Rothstein. The Dust Bowl devastated great areas of the Plains causing drought and crop failure . Rothstein took a single shot of Art Coble and his sons at their homestead as they stood enveloped in swirling sand . The image was published and seen across America causing the emotive impact the FSA desired. However Rothstein “was accused of fakery” (Warner Marien , 2010 ,p.g 285) when it was discovered an image of a steer’s skull taken against the backdrop of parched earth had been moved. The dust , parched land , and bone dry skull with its connotation of death were powerful metaphors of the awful predicament of the beleaguered inhabitants who lived in areas affected by the Dust Bowl.

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Arthur Rothstein

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The FSA photographers had nothing to gain personally by exploiting their subjects but they certainly manipulated the truth in order to obtain the evidence required for their employer. As there was no malice intended , only the need to gain support for legislation aimed at bringing relief to the stricken individuals they encountered , therefore can the work of the FSA photographers be really considered unethical?


Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography How photography has changed our lives , London , UK :Quadrille Publishing

Bolton , R. (ed) , 1992 . The Context of Meaning:Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge , MA :MIT Press

James Curtis. Making Sense of Documentary Photography’
Core resources:MakingSense.pdf

Dickie Chris , (2009) . Photography The 50 most influential photographers in the world , London , UK : A & C Black

Jeffrey Ian , (1981) . Photography A Concise History , London , UK :Thames & Hudson

Jeffrey Ian , (1997 ) .The Photo Book , London , UK : Phaidon Press

Stepan Peter (ed) , (2005). Icons of Photography The 20th Century , London , UK : Prestel

Warner Marien Mary. (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, London, UK : Laurence King
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Research point : Humphrey Spender

Explore the website Humphrey Spender’s Worktown

Public school educated Spender was the Mass- Observation’s main photographer. Mass-Observation was established in 1937 by Tom Harrison , an anthropologist , the poet Charles Madge , and Humphrey Jennings a film maker. Their ambitious project was to record the everyday life and customs of the British public accurately and unobtrusively . However “the project , although left wing and meaning well , inevitably had the stamp of the Cambridge anthropologist about it ” (Badger, 2007, pg. 78) . As well as photography the survey was to include written material , eavesdroppers were to listen into conversations and make notes.

Between 1937 and 1940 Spender recorded life in industrial Bolton using a small Leica camera , a body of work which became known as Worktown . Spender admitted “he was both shy and nervous about approaching his subjects , yet somewhat guilty about taking candid pictures” (Badger, 2008, pg. 78) . Previously employed by The Mirror he held strong views about exploitation “when he was asked to exploit Edith Sitwells’ eccentricity he refused as he objected to personal caricature” (BJP ,19.4.00) . The majority of the images I looked at on the website seem to indicate Spender kept an objective distance from his subjects and for the most part the subjects seem unaware of being observed. However Spender “recalled that he experienced unambiguously negative reactions from people who objected to being photographed…………He was uncomfortable with these strong reactions , confirmation of his own sense that he was intruding upon people’s privacy and eventually decided to give up social-documentary photography” (Badger, 2007, pg. 78) .

The themes explored in Worktown are eclectic , Leisure , Graffiti , Industry , Politics , Shopping , Religion , Ceremonies , Pub , Blackpool , Sport , Street , and Work. Within each themed group there are a diverse range of images that record all aspects of everyday lives . The Leisure theme includes cafe’s , reading rooms , dance halls , parks and playgrounds. The image of an almost empty theatre for a production of Madame Butterfly seems to indicate opera is not something usually associated with the leisure time of the working class !

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Included within the Shopping section an image with the title of Workingman’s Hair Specialist (1937) made me smile .The irony of the ‘specialist’s’ head of wild hair juxtaposed with a banner advertising treatment for alopecia is something Spender must surely have observed too. His observational skills are evident in another image from the Street section entitled 3 Smart Girl’s (1937) . Three small girls , one pushing the other two who are sat in a pram along the pavement , behind them one billboard boldly displays the words — Sabotage— 3 Smart Girls . The images within the Blackpool section frequently have (I feel) an almost surreal quality .

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Spender’s imagery of Bolton captures mores and a time and place practically vanished now. “M-O was an early instance of what is now called citizen journalism” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 293) and the photographs have become an important record of working class heritage.

References / Bibliography

Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography How photography has changed our lives , London , UK :Quadrille Publishing

Core resources : BJP-Spender. PDF
Barron, Jim , ( 19/4/2000) 90 and Counting , BJP magazine.

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, London UK :Laurence King
Accessed 10/3/2015

Exercise : In the American East

Read ‘In the American East’ by Richard Bolton ( in Bolton , 1992 , pp.262-83 and write a 200 word reflective commentary on its relevance to documentary practice .

Then look at the work of Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia (Foto8 , V6N1 , June 2006, pp.58-9) Core resources:Foto8#6.1-Appalachian.pdf

Avedon spent around 6 years taking portraits of drifters , cowboys , and the disadvantaged he encountered on his journey in the American West. Using a white background his subjects are isolated from their surroundings , the intensity of his subjects’ gaze makes it impossible to look away. “ Avedon’s was a West of those whom the boom years of ‘Reganomics’ had bypassed. There is much wrinkled flesh in the series , most of it prematurely wrinkled by a harsh climate and harsh circumstances” (Badger, 2007, pg. 180) . Taken out of context the austere portraits symbolise the solitude and hardship of the dispossessed . However Bolton dismisses this concept and suggests that Avedon’s style “renders the subject mute” ( Bolton , 1992 ,p.g 264 ) . Furthermore whilst Bolton agrees that Avedon has built up a collection of ‘types’ he argues that the images “ have only to do with how people look” ( Bolton, 1992, p.g 265 ), and tell us little else.

Bolton discusses the decline of heavy industry along with the growth of information technology identifying a post-industrial society where corporates own and control the means of communication . He considers the possibility that Art no longer functions “ as a critical space” ( Bolton,1992 , p.g 262 ) having lost its autonomy to the corporate culture he identifies. Whilst the growth of corporate funding might be considered invaluable it also enables corporations to influence how and what is seen , which has obvious implications for unbiased documentary practice.

Avedon was an established fashion photographer when he was commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum to document In the American West . Due to the financial backing it was important to prevent bad reviews hence great effort was made to control the media coverage . The Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts was sponsored by Filene’s , a department stall , to exhibit the work. The “media attention was extraordinary” ( Bolton , 1992 , p.g 273) gaining publicity the gallery itself was unable to afford but was able to use to its advantage , membership and visitors grew vastly. Furthermore Filene’s “used the show as the basis of a sales campaign for Western wear” ( Bolton , 1992 , p.g 274) fashion wear advertisements were juxtaposed with Avedon’s portraits whose subjects were obviously “ not rehearsed in professional portraiture and their somewhat ‘fish out of water ‘ vulnerability is revealing” ( Dickie , 2009 , p.g 79) which makes one question the morality of accepting such patronage and whether in fact Avedon’s subjects were exploited in some way.

However I greatly admire Avedon’s portraiture and saw some of his work last year at the MoMA , New York , a stark and highly detailed large scale print from the series In the American West was mesmerising. Unlike the ambiguity of Avedon’s images Oestervang’s photographs taken in Eastern Kentucky USA are contextual studies which place the subject within a recognisable environment , but does this make them any more truthful than Avedon’s studies ? The answer I think lies in understanding why the images were initially made and carefully considering who is funding the project , and why. The sponsorship so often needed to fund documentary projects unfortunately may also control , censor and restrict what is being communicated.




Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography How photography has changed our lives , London UK:Quadrille Publishing

Bolton , R. (ed) , 1992 . The Context of Meaning:Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge , MA :MIT Press

Dickie Chris , (2009) . Photography The 50 most influential photographers in the world, London , UK:A & C Black–slash–%20Eastern%20Kentucky/1/15/

Exercise:B&W portraits as a documentary strategy

Read the information that accompanied August Sander’s exhibition People of the 20th Century at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Core resources : ASander-SFMOMA.pdf

Write a 200-word reflective commentary on Sander’s seven -category system. Briefly discuss the implication within the socio-cultural context of the time. Make connections with contemporary practice such as that of Zed Nelson , if appropriate.

Between 1910 and 1934 Sander travelled across Germany with the aim of chronicling modern German society through posed portraits of a broad spectrum of its citizens.

Sander’s seven categories:
The Farmer
The Skilled Tradesman
The Woman
Classes and Professions
The Artists
The City
The Last People.

Each of the seven categories included subjects with representative similarities. Within each category Sander’s egalitarian viewpoint becomes apparent , both the bricklayer and industrialists share the status of Skilled Tradesmen. The final group , The Last People included within its category the elderly, those with disabilities (physical and mental ) , the homeless , beggars etc , the most vulnerable section of society , this last group is especially poignant. Due to the rise of Hitler , the Third Reich and the political agenda of the Nazi Party the socially disadvantaged immortalised by Sander’s images were unlikely to survive. Sander himself was viewed with suspicion , his democratic view of what constituted German citizenship did not match that of the Nazis. Consequently his glass plates were destroyed , but luckily the negatives survived.

Zed Nelson’s project Disappearing Britain bears similarities to Sander’s People of the 20th Century and I like the straightforward portraits very much . Basic information accompanies the images , name , occupation , year , shot in B&W with the subject looking directly at the camera. Unlike People of the 20th Century Nelson’s subjects are not categorised into such wide-ranging social groups but simply by their occupation , Cornish Fisherman , Shipbuilders , Boxers , World War 2 Veterans, Yorkshire Miners , and Fox Hunters , trades fast becoming extinct.

References / Bibliography

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Exercise:Daniel Meadows

Listen to Daniel Meadows talking about his work:http:/

Then read the essay ‘The Photographer as Recorder’ by Guy Lane.

Core resources-GuyLane .pdf

The Free Photographic Omnibus

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Between 1973 and 1974 Daniel Meadows travelled 10,000 miles around England in a double decker bus , visiting twenty-two towns and photographing 958 people. His intended aim to capture a “straight photographic record of the English today” . Aged 21 he had recently finished art school and describes himself as a “documentarist not a conventional photographer“. The bus became his home for fourteen months and was additionally his studio and dark room. As an inducement to persuade people to take part each subject was to receive a free portrait print of themselves.

He discusses being “immensely curious about the world” and how he wanted ordinary people to be “empowered”. He was not interested in commercial photography , nor trying to flatter, he was intent with meeting and talking to people , listening to their stories , no matter how everyday they were. He became an intermediary for other peoples stories believing “ each of us is unique”. On his website Meadows mentions the significance of the title of the project, the Latin word omnibus translates to ‘for all the people’. The project concluded with an exhibition and book both entitled Living like this in1975.

In the essay Lane considers the leaflet that Meadows used to publicise his plan to undertake a documentary survey and gain funding. The leaflet states Meadows intentions and contextualises his approach. Lane also examines the unpretentious straightforward photograph of Meadows on the flyer , which along with the text denotes how the project will be recorded.

In 1999 Meadows returned to the project with the aim of re-photgraphing subjects from the original series. Some of the original subjects had died and unfortunately he had took no names so was initially unable to contact his former subjects. Following appeals in local newspapers people began to make contact with him. The paired images make interesting viewing , a study of time and change. One group of men , mostly now married and working , former Boot Boys during the early 70’s , were less than pleased to find their images in the local newspaper pinned around their workplace !  (They did have their photo taken again though) . Meadows points out a predicament facing all documentarists– are they exploitive or allies? What is evident listening to Daniel Meadows talking is his enthusiasm and total commitment to not only photography but giving ordinary people a voice.

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Paradoxically its for the portraiture not the documentary element of The Free Photographic Omnibus that it is noted for now. An exhibition and book National Portraits curated by Val Williams in 1997 featured 41 images from the series of which 34 were portraits taken against a blank background. Meadow’s original edit of 150 images included few of these. Lane points out how William’s edit altered the original context.

I have to say I found the Guy Lane essay hard-going and difficult to follow.

Bibliography / References