This is something that I respect:
“Dorethea Lange…made photographs of people, of their portraits at first and gradually of their place and time. She devoted her photographic life to exploring and depicting social concerns.”
I think there is still potential for this kind of work and there are some photographers who are doing great work in this realm, but times have changed. The power or credibility of the photograph has declined over time. Although photo-manipulation has been around since the beginning of photography—roughly around 1839—today there is less impact behind or within an image and not necessarily because of manipulation (reference Fred Ritchin’s recent Time Lightbox post
about leaked images as evidence to thousands of Syrian civilians tortured and killed). We live in a world of self-surveillance and it changes the way that we act and react to images. And that’s why I think the quote below doesn’t necessarily hold true today, if it ever did.
“The men and women in her pictures were largely oblivious to her camera and so continued to be themselves, to be human....”
From the photographic negative came cinema, which referenced theater. The actors of cinema performed for a camera/a flat screen and not a live audience. It almost seems impossible to “act natural” when someone is telling you to hold still. Or to call someone’s actions natural when they are aware of the camera. They couldn’t have been oblivious to her camera, it was a slow, large format camera. I like how photographer, Alec Soth, describes his interactions with subjects. He says
in an online interview that, “I’ve often said that when I make a portrait whatI’m really photographing is the space between the sitter and myself.”
I think that’s a better way of understanding the photographs in these projects. These photographs depict the space between the subject and the photographer.
Alec Soth and writer, Brad Zellar are currently working on a project strikingly similar to these text/image stories. It’s called the Little Brown Mushroom (Soth’s publishing company) Dispatch
: An Irregularly Published Newspaper. So far they have done projects based in and around Ohio, Michigan, New York, California, and Texas. The two men select regions of the US—the latest being the Texas Triangle—and do research about the history and current state of the location and then head there to wander and see what they find.
The dispatches are often less reflective like in the Depression era peices, but reference more literature. In a dispatch, there is usually one image per page with a quote from the person or a snippet of relevant literature. I think this approach is most similar to An American Exodus than any of the others. It’s similar, but the dispatches have a little more leniency with the text that they put in there. Lange and Taylor mainly use quotes as an attempt to keep up with their documentary approach.
This quote from An American Exodus sums it up:
“This is neither a book of photographs nor an illustrated book in the traditional sense. Its particular form is the result of our use of techniques in proportions and relations designed to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly. We use the camera as a tool of research. Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field. We adhere to the standards of documentary photography as we have conceived them. Quotations which accompany photographs report what the person photographed said, not what we think might be their unspoken thoughts. Where there are no people, and no other source is indicated, the quotation comes from persons whom we met in the field.”
It’s interesting to think about what the dispatches do today in a world saturated with digital images. We just experienced/are still experiencing the most recent financial crisis since the Great Depression, so it almost seems fitting for a photographer and writer to go out survey the land and its people. Well first off, newsprint is analog. It’s physical and it takes up spac. The dispatch is like a chopped up newspaper, mimicking the form of the short-attention-spanned interfaces we interact with on a daily basis. The dispatch takes the characteristics of the digital experience and makes them analog.
Another difference is that the dispatch doesn’t try to act like some straight documentary truth. Alec Soth said, “Photography is very related to poetry. It’s suggestive and fragmentary and unsatisfying in a lot of ways. It’s as much about what you leave out as what you put in.” And this brings up more parallels and contrasts between the dispatches and the reader/writer combos of the Great Depression, but I think it’s good to see both as fragmentary and suggestive.
Read more about the Dispatches through this New Yorker Lensblog post