The Image of Freedom!
Reviewed for Photo Notes by Walter Rosenblum
The invitation asked the following questions. "What, to you, most deeply signifies America? Can you compress it into a few photographic images?" Here was a chance for photographers all over the country to show through their medium just what America meant to them.
The rules accompanying the invitation deserve special mention because of their democratic character. Everyone was eligible to enter. To insure impartiality, only a number instead of the photographer's name was to appear on the back of the print. There was one question, however, which many photographers raised. The Museum had announced that it would pay $25.00 for each print accepted. Shouldn't a photograph, which was to become a part of the Museum's permanent collection deserve better financial remuneration.
But, at one stroke, the photographer had gained some of the rights which had ever been the goal of the creative artist. Entry was open to all, there was no pre-selected list of "favorite sons", and the judging took place without the names of the contestants being known
After a great deal of anticipation, the opening date of the exhibition arrived. Our excitement had been previously heightened by the announcement that 13% of the prints accepted by the Museum were the work of Photo League members--an excellent representation of our work in a national competition.
When, on the opening day, I examined the photographs, I was greatly disappointed. The call had gone out to all the photographers in the country to show their own personal conception of "America." The show on the museum walls was no fitting reply to the demand.
Why was the show disappointing? Why did it fail to click? It failed because the photographs were not sufficiently representative of America. The line which many of the photographers adapted was too narrow, and failed to take into consideration many of the broader aspects of American Life. To re-evaluate their relationship as photographers to the world about them, appears to be the most necessary adjustment many of the photographer s, who competed in the exhibition, must make. To elaborate,--the museum invitation contained a terse question. "What, to you most deeply signifies America?". A simple question it would seem, but one which was, in reality, is important to the photographer as any he could ask himself. Why are you alive, the question asks? who are your friends? What is your relationship to the people around you? What creative work are you doing? What are you doing to build a better life for you and the people around you? The answers to all these questions would be deeply engraved in the lines of the photograph.
America and its democracy must mean something special to each photographer. Here he was asked to show what it was. Generally speaking, our democracy gives us many freedoms. The right to vote, the right of religious worship, the right to join a trade union, the right to have our own representatives in Our government. In essence, the Museum has asked us what in this country is worth defending? What differentiates it from Nazi Germany? Of course, as many of the photographers showed in the Museum competition it is to a certain extent our beautiful country, the trees, the skies, the very earth which we all hold so dear.
But isn't there something more important than that now? Isn't the Image of Freedom something bigger, something more vital? Isn't it that very human quality that differentiates a Nazi Storm trooper from a real American. Isn't it that which is reflected in the workers of Lewis Hine, the people who built the Empire State building, the oppressed who come to this country for refuge?
Isn't it the farmer of Dorothea Lange, the sharecropper's brave wife? Isn't it the complete body of work of the F. S. A.? Isn't it the worker in the mill, in the shop, in the factory? The teacher who can teach as he pleases, without following a regimented text book drawn up by the Nazis? Isn't it reflected in these people who have a stake in our democracy that they are proud of and are willing to fight for to defend?
Isn't it the people who organized Ford at the cost of their lives, the . American boys who went to Spain to stop the fascist invader before he was able to spread his power. Isn't it the air raid warden in the city streets, who stands with his head so high, because he is doing his bit for his country? Isn't it that American, who after a hard day's work, visits a Red Cross Station in order to donate his blood to the cause of democracy, to that cause which will give us a better change of retaining our own freedom.
These are the places where the photographer must go to take pictures. These are the things which his camera must cry out are worth defending. Go to the people, to the auto workers in Detroit, to the transport workers in New York, to the Farmer's Union in Oklahoma. Let us photograph the people who are making America a finer place for us all. These are the things which our pictures must show. These are the things which we must reaffirm.
I was greatly surprised that most of the creative photographers in America were not represented. Where were all the F. S. A. photographers, the newspaper and magazine photographers, the young creative people who have been doing such fine work? It was then that I remembered the difficulty many of us had in deciphering certain legal terms which were contained in the Museum announcement. In its contest rules the museum demanded sole and exclusive rights to any photograph which was purchased. Much of the creative work in photography, work done by these photographers is done while under contract. And so the Museum rule excluded their work. And not only that. Even if these photographers were to do work exclusively for this particular competition, the contest rules, by assuming complete copyright ownership of the photograph, forbade its use at any other time. Many photographers were unwilling to sign away the rights to their most creative work for the $25.00 offered by the Museum. Many Photo League members would have been kept out in this way if personal inquiry hadn't been made of Mr. Newhall of the Museum staff.
Here we discovered that the question was merely a form question and had no real meaning. But nevertheless, others were confused, and by this error, the museum immediately cut off a great source of its supply of fine pictures.
There was also an error made, I feel, in the range of the judges which were chosen. For one thing, a great many photographers felt that the judges mirrored too much the museum itself. Other judges should have been added who were a little broader in the scope of their experiences. It is true, and rightfully so, that in any competition, the judges reflect their own opinions in the photographs which they choose. It is also true that the judges chosen by the Museum reflected to a great extent, the same feelings and the same ideas about photography. Thus would naturally color the photographs chosen. Many photographers felt, that other judges should have been added who represent other trends of thought in photography. For instance more photographers should have been added to the panel. Photographers who would reflect the most vital work which is being done in photography today.
There are about 15 photographs in the show which deserve special mention as being particularly important. Important because they make a very valid contribution towards our life, and our way of living. They strengthen our belief in the people of our country. Sid Grossman's three pictures deserve special mention. Look at his picture of the Arkansas farmer, of the farmer in the Tenant's Union in Oklahoma, of the two bootblacks on the sidewalks of New York. The power, the emotional intensity comes through with a great emotional impact to the observer. Look at Pete Sekaer's wonderful studies of people, at Sol Libsohn's picture of the two boys speaking to each other. Or at Jean Johnson's picture of the little negro boy.
The Museum should be congratulated for a very sincere attempt to wield together in one show, some of the finest work being done in photography today. I am certain that their next effort will meet with greater success.