The Inevitable Tension Between the Documenter and the Documented
Two equally fascinating yet very different collections of Depression-era photo-texts: You Have Seen Their Faces
, by Caldwell and Bourke-White, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
, by Agee and Evans. Supporters of each of these works criticized the respective “opposing” piece; meanwhile Alan Trachtenburg suggests (in the foreword of You Have Seen…) we should “see these two imaginative works less as antagonists than as coinhabitants of the same historical and cultural space,” (viii).
Both pieces certainly have an individual beauty to them, distinctive styles that are sometimes very human, sometimes rather haunting. In You Have Seen Their Faces
, the photography of Bourke-White is something far beyond an art form to accompany the written text; in fact, most of the time it seems to lead the piece itself through its intense visual representations of themes. Before reading about the children and teenagers who are unable to attend school because of the demands of the farm, we are presented with a photograph of a boy in overalls tending to the land, wearing a mixed expression of fatigue and concentration. Following the collection of pictures whose subjects are both white and black – subjects who, regardless of color, show their discipline and their struggles through the same squinted eyes or forehead lines – we read Caldwell’s discourse on “race relations in the South,” (vi).
Of course, these photographs could, as Trachtenburg points out, be viewed as “excessively theatrical and manipulative” when compared to the almost impossibly natural and nonintrusive work of Walker Evans (vii). Lionel Trilling praises Evans’ photographs in his review of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
, entitled Greatness With One Fault in It
“The superiority of Evans to all this (the impreciseness of photography) could no doubt be described in technical and aesthetic terms, but what always immediately strikes me about his work is its perfect taste, taking that word in its largest possible sense to mean tact, delicacy, justness of feeling, complete awareness and perfect respect. It is a tremendously impressive moral quality,” (100).
Evans seems to have avoided putting his photographic subjects on the museum-like display so typical of the art form; it would be especially hard to avoid rendering the subject as object when dealing with an atmosphere already heavy with a gritty despair so intense it sometimes feels naturally “theatrical.”
The almost inevitably condescending relationship between the documented and the documenter, while having seemingly been dodged by Evans, catches hold of Agee – the “one fault” to which Trilling’s title alludes. In class we have been discussing this troublesome tightrope on which all of these Depression-era documenters must balance: how does one approach such a situation? The artist or writer, who is (obviously) better off than his subjects in that he is capturing them by camera or pen and not out there working on the fields with them (for the most part), stands in a very interesting position when doing this recording. Furthermore, with this awkward class tension looming in the background, the documenter must properly represent these people – he must be their faces, their voices, and their stories. How do you emulate the speaking style of a farmer through writing without making him sound uneducated? How do you photograph a thinning mother with her dusty children without presenting them as pitiable stereotypes?
It isn’t easy work, and can often lead to results something along the lines of Agee’s writing, as criticized by Trilling. It seems Agee, because of his guilt and through his attempts to respectfully depict his subjects, has taken it too far and has put them on this kind of moral pedestal – as hard working, disciplined people made of rock who, wiping their brows after another day of struggle, can at least find solace in that they “can do no wrong.” As Trilling explains, Agee writes, “of his people as if there were…no flicker of malice or meanness, no darkness or wildness of feeling, only a sure and simple virtue, the growth, we must suppose, of their hard, unlovely poverty,” (102). Through failing to “see these people as anything but good,” Agee unfortunately defeats his original purpose and really is in fact showing less respect in that his guilt and pity for them ring strong.
Yet as I said before, avoiding such a tendency certainly is difficult; I wonder, when it comes to written documentation, if such a thing is even possible?