Against this pattern of sterility, of ideas which could not reproduce themselves, we have the new function (and evolving from it the new esthetic) of documentary photography, an application of photography direct and realistic, dedicated to the profound and sober chronicling of the external world. To Lewis Hine, who thirty-five years ago was making photographs of child labor in sweat shops and textile mills, the vague tenents of pictorialism or the even less useful purposes of the "photogram" or "rayograph" must be incomprehensible. To the hard-working photographers of the Farm Security Administration, the somewhat remote and abstruse manner of the spiritual heirs of the Photo-Secession may seem too refined. To such a photographer as Berenice Abbott, setting down the tangible visage of New York in precise detain and lineament, the sentimental fantasies of a Fassbinder must be well nigh incredible.
The above is not intended as an ad hominem argument. The instances are noted merely to indicate different directions and purposes in photography. The reason that the difference may so clearly be illustrated is that the difference in ideas of the new photography and all the old styles is like the difference between two continents: it is a "passage to India" to travel from the old to the new. We have all had a surfeit of "pretty" pictures, of romantic views of hilltop, seaside, rolling fields, skyscrapers seen askew, picturesque bits of life torn out of their sordid context. It is life that is exciting and important, and life whole and unretouched.
By virtue of this new spirit of realism, photography looks now at the external world with new eyes, the eyes of scientific, uncompromising honesty. The camera eye cannot lie, is lightly said. On the contrary, the camera eye usually does nothing but lie, rationalizing the wrinkles of an aging face, obligingly overlooking peeling paint and rotting wood. But the external workd is those facts of decay and change, of social retrogression and injustice--as well as the wide miles of America and its vast mountain ranges. The external world, we may add, is the world of human beings; and, whether we see their faces or the works of their hands and the consequences, tragic or otherwise, of their social institutions, we look at the world with a new orientation, more concerned with what is outside than with the inner ebb and flow of consciousness.
For this reason, a Farm Security Administration photograph of an old woman's knotted and gnarled hands is a human and social document of great moment and moving quality. In the erosion of these deformed fingers is to be seen the symbol of social distortion and deformation: waste is to be read here, as it is read in lands washed down to the sea by floods, in dust storms and in drouth bowls. The fact is a thousand times more important than the photographer; his personality can be intruded only by the worst taste of exhibitionism; this at last is reality. Yet, also, by the imagination and intelligence he possesses and uses, the photographer controls the new esthetic, finds the significant truth and gives it significant form.
This is indeed the vanguard of photography today. For the channels of distribution for truth are no more numerous for the photograph than for the printed or spoken word, the theatre, the moving picture, the arts generally. The censorship that in Hollywood has shifted from leg and kiss sequences to social themes operates also with the publications that use photographs--and by their use support the photographer. The opportunities for publishing honest photographs of present-day life in magazines or newspapers are not many; a Hearst press is not the only censor of truth.
For this reason, we find the strongest precedent for documentary photography in the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers and in the Federal Art Project "Changing New York" series by Berenice Abbott. As in soil erosion and flood control, highway engineering, agricultural experiment stations and numerous other important technical activities, the best sponsor of knowledge (even if on too limited a scale) has been the government. By combinations of circumstances that we shall not call lucky accidents, these pioneer ventures have been gotten under way and have broken ground for younger workers to till. Already the influence of the new spirit may be observed, as a more straight-forward quality pervades much of the work published, even in magazines not vowed to the documentary ideal.
What is this ideal, you have the right to say. A hundred years ago when photography was born, an enthusiast cried, "From this day painting is dead." Nevertheless painting has survived till the present. Thus in the course of the past century certain confusions grew up around photography. In the case of D. O. Hill, there was no question as to why he took portraits; they were notes to be incorporated in a canvas with over two hundred figures. Julia Cameron was an elderly woman who perused a hobby, incidentally turning out masterpieces of portraiture. Atget had no nonsense about him when he made "documents pour artistes;" and certainly there was no false estheticism involved when Brady went to the Civil War.
But at the turn of the century art got mixed with photography. Some inner insecurity of photographers (seduces, perhaps, by commercial appeals and selling talks) led them to precipitate the battle: "Is photograph ART?" Today progressive photographers are not especially interested in the point; it seems an empty issue. There is the whole wide world before the lens, and reality uniting to be set down imperishably.
Without prejudicing the case, we may say at once that photography is not art in the old sense. It is not a romantic, impressionistic medium, dependent on subjective factors and ignoring the objective. It is bound to realism in as complex a way as buildings are bound to the earth by the pull of gravitation, unless we build aerial cities, cantilevering or suspending them in mid-air.
But this is certain from history--that forms and values change under the impact of new energies. The arts alter their modes of expression and their emphasis on subject matter, their ideology and their iconography, as society changes. Today we do not want emotion from art; we want a solid and substantial food on which to bite, something strong and hearty to get our teeth into, sustenance for the arduous struggle that existence is in eras of crisis. We want the truth, not rationalization, not idealizations, not romanticizations. That truth we get from reading a financial page, a foreign cable, an unemployment survey report. That truth we receive, visually, from photographs recording the undeniable facts of life today, old wooden slums canting on their foundations, an isolated farmer's shack, poor cotton fields, dirty city streets, the chronicles written in the faces of men and women and children.
Yet this truth is not an abstract statement, made in a desert with none to hear. The new spirit in art (if, after all the talk, we agree that photography is an art) represents a drastic reversal position from the attitudes of the twenties. One cannot imagine a Joyce or a Proust producing documentary photographs, if photography were their medium. On the contrary, one can think of a Thomas Mann finding documentary photography much to his liking, congenial as it is to the careful factual implementation of "The Magic Mountain."
Instead for prototypes, we turn back to the ages of realism, to Balzac, to Fielding, to Dickens, to a painter like Gericault who painted humble scenes of farm life as well as grandiose mythological scenes. A work of art, on this basis, must have meaning, it must have content, it must communicate, it must speak to an audience. The cult of non-intelligibility and non-communication is no longer fashionable; only a fringe of survivors makes a virtue of a phrase which is a dead issue.
For communication, the photograph has qualities equaled by no other pictorial medium. If one wishes to present the interior of a slum dwelling where eight people live in one room, the camera will reveal the riddled floors, the dirty bedding, the dishes stacked unwashed on a table, the thousand and one details that total up to squalor and human degradation. To paint each item completely would take a dozen Hoochs and Chardins many months. Here with the instantaneous blink of the camera eye, we have reality captured, set down for as long as negative and print will endure.
Actually there is no limit to the world of external reality the photographer may record. Every subject is significant, considered in its context and viewed in the light of historical forces. It is the spirit of his approach which determines the value of the photographer's endeavor, that plus his technical ability to say what he wants to say. First of all, there is no room for exhibitionism or opportunism or exploitation in the equipment of the documentary photographer. His purpose must be clear and unified, and his mood simple and modest. Montage of his personality over his subject will only defeat the serious aims of documentary photography. For the greatest objective of such work is to widen the world we live in, to acquaint us with the range and variety of human existence, to inform us (as it were forcibly) of unnecessary social horrors such as war, to make us aware of the civilization in which we live and hope to function as creative workers. This is a useful work, and as such beyond claims of mere personality or clique.