An American Exodus, by Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor
Reviewed by Paul Strand
Editor's Note:.... We are very proud to present the following review by Mr. Paul Strand. We feel that its contents are of great value.
A collaboration between a photographer and a social scientist brings us another valuable document of contemporary America. The story of the "Grapes of Wrath"--the story of that tragic dislocation which is driving hundreds of thousands of impoverished Americans off the land, onto the highways, into the already flooded market of migrant laborers is also the subject of "An American Exodus."
The author of the photographs, Dorthea Lange, and the author of the text, Paul S. Taylor, worked together "in every aspect from the form as a whole to the least detail of arrangement or phrase." The form they chose is a complex one. They have tried to weld photographs, an expositional text dealing with the causes and effects of this vast social upheaval with an additional element: words they heard spoken by some of the people who are the victims of this catastrophe.
The very statement of the complex nature of this interesting form emphasizes its difficulties. For the balance to be established between these different elements in order to achieve a basic unity of statement whose sum would be "a record of human erosion: is a most difficult problem. Different from but no less urgent than the solution demanded in a documentary film of the relation between commentary, dialogue and the photographic images.
I do not think Miss Lange and Mr. Taylor have solved this problem in their first attack upon it. There are some very fine photographs in the book; some remarkable records of human feelings spoken as only those people could have phrased them; Mr. Taylor's account is straightforward and interesting but yet the total impression does not have the impact upon the eye and the mind which the subject surely contains and which the authors clearly were deeply moved to give us.
Reasons for this are undoubtedly many and beyond the scope of a review to formulate. This new form needs a good deal of thinking about. But several general deductions can be made I think. It seems clear that in such a book as this the photographs must be the foundation material, provide the basic structure just as in a documentary film, and that the function of the text must be to heighten and extend their individual and total meaning. It would not seem that the authors made that decision, were clear about it. As a result many of the photographs do little more than illustrate the text. Or vice versa, the text at times simply parallels the information given explicitly by the photograph. Thus there is a tendency towards negation rather than active interaction between image and word.
Secondly, and perhaps because of the lack of a basic photographic structure, the selection of the photographs themselves seem very uneven. For Miss Lange is a very talented photographer who has done some of the finest work in the Farm Security Administration Project. Such photographs as the cotton picker on Page 18 of the book, the tenant farmers, Page 77, the woman opposite Page 140, have that concentration of expressiveness which makes the difference between a good record and a much deeper penetration of reality. For if books like this are to have their maximum value, then it is clear that the basic material, the photographs, must be more than documentary records. They must contain in themselves (and in a book in their juxtaposition to each other) that unity and intensity of expression which give all works of art their impact.
What we mean by the word documentary is I believe a certain definite approach to the realities of the world we live in. But this must not be understood as mere record making--but as a problem of clarifying and creating a new art form--with the camera. That Dorothea Lange has solved this problem in some of the photographs in this book, there is no doubt. The cotton picker is an unforgettable photograph in which is epitomized not only this one man bending down under the oppressive sky, but the lot of thousands of his fellows.
Despite the foregoing criticism, I repeat that "An American Exodus" is a valuable document and a work of integrity and honest feeling. Coming as it does after the awareness of its subject has been spread so widely through "Grapes of Wrath," both book and film, its value is enhanced. It should be warmly welcomed. This criticism therefore, is concerned rather with future books, I hope Miss Lange and Mr. Taylor will give us; and with posing problems other documentary photographers and writers should face.