The Farm Security Administration
Reviewed by Robert Disraeli
I am not much of an exhibition visitor. Many exhibition pictures are well done technically, but the trite contents and the imitative approaches bore me. A "ho-hum" is about all one can say after seeing these displays of photographic bromides. They do not excite; if anything they depress the mind. One proceeds to forget them quickly.
These is only one gallery where photographic exhibitions are different and unusual, and that is, at the Newly renovated rooms of the Photo League. It arranges exhibitions that arouse controversy about the content of the pictures and not about photographic technic.
The current exhibition of the photographers of the Farm Security Administration at the Photo League is one of those exhibitions that will arouse healthy controversy about photography and about subject matter. The exhibit is in my opinion one of the most interesting and most important of this season. The photographs are uniformly good technically; there is no pretense of trick light and trick angle. The subject matter is so real and powerful that it forbids photographic virtuosity.
As one looks at these pictures, the visitor forgets about cameras, films, filters, developers and exposure meters. He gives the highest compliment to the creative photographer by forgetting that these are photographs as he becomes deeply absorbed in the subject material.
Most of these pictures are not just records. They achieve that high goal of documentary photography of penetrating into the subject and elevating it to a plane of reality that transcends the moment in which the photograph was made. I would like to point out a few that particularly appealed to me in this way:--
A photograph by Lee of a group of children of a tenant farmer in Ringgold County, Iowa--the picture does not show any faces; only the feet and the lower part of the clothing. Yet, it is so arranged and photographed that these things, called by courtesy, shoes, and these rags, called by courtesy, clothing, speak eloquently against our impoverishment, our diseases and our deaths. One feels that as long as there is even one group of impoverished children in this country one cannot be happy until a solution is found to eliminate this horror.
A picture by Arthur Rothstein of a farmer's wife and child looking out of the window of their home, a farmhouse in Oswego County--their gaunt faces are pressed against the dim window panes which are framed by the unpainted boards of the house. Our pictorialist would sentimentally admire the simple and effective composition of this picture. He would call it architectronic and remark about the beautiful representation of textural surfaces since the photograph shows every crack and grain of the wood. I do not believe that Rothstein was interested in the textural surfaces as such, but only that they represented the outward signs of putrefaction caused by the deepest poverty. An old farm house rotting together with its inhabitants should not be in our day a sentimental object. It only spells poverty which is a more important problem today than the aesthetics of texture.
Helen Post exhibits a picture of coal miner's children of West Virginia--two ragged children suffering from malnutrition are sitting on a ghost of a bed facing the camera. They stare at you with sullen suspicion and not with the curiosity of well-conditioned children. Where is that rosy-skinned, that eager bubbling and laughing American child? Not here among these walls made of flattened cornflake boxes. How Godly clean are the dolls' clothing compared to the rags that barely cover the children.
This briefly indicates the excellence of the majority of the photographs in the exhibition. It is noticeable that in many the faces are haggard and their expression are those of a harried people. But these faces and bodies still show beauty and strength. Beauty in the delicate lines of a woman's face or a child's body that even the greatest depression has not been able to conquer. Strength in the eyes and in the bearing of the men bespeaks hope and a grim determination to overcome their difficulties. In none of these pictures do we see that toothy American smile. These pictures are more than photographs. They point up and out the status of a highly complex situation which is rapidly developing toward a climax.
One cannot leave them without a feeling of optimism that here, expertly and beautifully done, we have the grim record of a passing phase in the life of our country; and that in the future our descendants will say when looking at these pictures: "those were the faces of our ancestors who overcame their difficulties with heroic determination and forced themselves upward into the sun and into the golden air so that we might live in a world of beauty and justice."