Afterthoughts on the representational strategies of the FSA documentary
Edgar Shaohua Huang
Redbud Hill Apt 901
Bloomington, IN 47408-2378
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Abstract: This paper analyzed the truth strategies of documentary photography
from the positivist, social contructivist, Marxist, and postmodernist
perspectives in an attempt to find out what caused the decline of documentary
photography and whether traditional documentary can be reinvented. The analysis
focused on the FSA works (especially on Arthur Rothstein's famous Skull
picture), which have been regarded by photographic communities as classical
Afterthoughts on the representational strategies of the FSA documentary
A run-down and lonely house surrounded by floating sand, for which two
kids, together with their father, are heading hard in a dust storm that darkened
the sky: this is how Arthur Rothstein portrayed in his famous photograph titled
"Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936" the life condition of the rural
families in the Mid West affected both by the dust storm and by the Great
Depression. This picture "convinced Washington to send government aid to the
eroded and drought-stricken Great Plains" (Rothstein, 1986).
For those who are not familiar with the photographs taken by the Farm
Security Administration (FSA) photographers in the 1930s, Dust Storm might give
you a general idea as to what they are like. These photographs, for the first
time in history, were credited as documentary photographs, and the term
documentary photography was coined also at that time, although the American
social documentary tradition had well started at the turn of the century when
Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine took pictures in service of a social cause, showed
what was wrong with the society, and persuaded their fellows to take action to
make wrongs right.
In 1935, the United States found itself in the most serious economic
depression which had lasted for some years. Thousands and thousands of people
were unemployed; and farmers, who had been seen as the backbone of the country,
were especially struck, not only by the collapse of the market, but by
unprecedented drought and dust storm. They began to leave their home and
immigrated in throngs to California. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt
decided to establish a new government agency called Resettlement Administration
(RA), which was renamed Farm Security Administration in 1935, in the hope that
it would bring economic relief and technical aid to the country and bring an end
to the great depression. Unexpectedly, a small group of photographers from the
Historical Section, one of the FSA agencies, produced one of the greatest
collections of photographs in the history of America under the direction of Roy
Stryker from 1935 to 1941. In the 270,000 pictures that was later collected in
the Library of Congress, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell
Lee and other FSA photographers made a comprehensive record of the American life
mainly in the rural areas. Their objective, as Stryker put it , was to
"introduce America to Americans," to show American spirit, and to provide
forceful evidence to the "New Deal" legislature.
FSA photographers made documentary photography known and recognized as a
distinctive photographic genre and made it well accepted as a channel of
conveying "truth." The FSA photographic achievement was acclaimed as a great
contribution to the development of American photography. In the New York Times,
the photography critic Gene Thornton said:
It is one of the oddities of our times that photographs like these are
not considered an important part of art history. The standard histories of
from the ashcan school to abstraction concentrate on painting and are more
notice the museum and gallery photography of Stieglitz and his successors
documentary photography of the FSA photographers and their successors among
photojournalists. I will hazard a guess, however, that in one hundred
years, or perhaps
even fifty, the documentary photography of Arthur Rothstein and his
colleagues will seem
far more important as art than all the American painting of the past fifty
in Rothstein, 1986, p. 41).
Although the influence of the documentary genre brought up by the FSA team
was reflected in the work produced by Photo League, Eugene Smith, and many other
documentary photographers from the 1930s till today, the decline of this
traditional documentary came in the late 1940s. Instead of showing social
injustice or social evil and arousing actions to right wrongs, a new generation
of documentary photographers in the 1950s such as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand,
and Diane Arbus began to adopt a documentary approach toward more personal
ends. "Their aim has not been to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays
a sympathy--almost an affection--for the imperfections and frailties of society
(John Szarkowski, quoted in Rosler, 1989, p.78)." As Rosler observed: "The
liberal New Deal state has been dismantled piece by piece. The War on Poverty
has been called off. Utopia has been abandoned, and liberalism itself has been
deserted. ... The liberal documentary, in which members of the ascendant classes
are implored to have pity on and to rescue members of the oppressed, now belongs
to the past." (Rosler, 1989, p.72, 80). A group of documentary photographers on
the west coast of the US, like Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier, whose work are
backed up by Marxist convictions, tried to reinvent documentary photography in
the 1970s. Nevertheless, this 'New Documentary Photography' movement did not
gain enough popularity because of its radical political position: so far, it is
a long way from achieving its goal. Documentary photography, as a genre, has
lost its old-day power in the contemporary American scene of arts and mass media
though it still functions socially in one way or another. Cultural expressions
based on a routed liberalism still survive. The now legitimized documentary has
more or less become a ritual.
From diversified perspectives, scholars have anatomized and criticized the
moribund traditional social documentary. It seems that the days are gone when
documentary photography can influence the legislature and extract money out of
the pocket of the sympathetic audience. What's wrong, then, with the social
documentary? Will social documentary, instead of recording history, eventually
itself become history? Can documentary be reinvented, as Allan Sekula (1984)
expected in his reinvention manifesto? This paper has reviewed the existing
literature, analyzed the traditional documentary strategies from positivist,
social contructivist, Marxist, and postmodernist perspectives in an attempt to
find out what caused the decline of this prominent photographic genre and
whether traditional documentary can be reinvented. My work analysis will be
focused on the FSA photographs (especially on Arthur Rothstein's famous Skull),
which have been regarded by photographic communities as classical documentary
What is documentary photography?
When we see a series of photographs like the ones taken by Jacob Riis,
Dorothea Lange or Robert Frank, we may not hesitate to call them documentary
photographs. But what is really that thing called documentary photography? Are
Robert Frank's photographs the same as those taken by Riis or Lange as their
ways of representation and their subject matters are concerned? Possibly not.
Since the term "documentary photography" was coined in the United States in 1935
(Meltzer, 1978, p.159-160), there have been sporadic attempts to define this
controversial construct. Documentary photographers take pictures according to
their diversified understanding of what documentary photography is, leaving what
they call documentary photographs everywhere, but the meaning of documentary
photography fixed nowhere. Documentary photography has been claimed to be
different from photojournalism and art photography (Schuneman, 1972; Rothstein,
1986; Goldberg, 1991; Becker, 1996), but it has been practiced and utilized in
all these and many other domains. Subject matters for documentary photography
are as diversified as people can conceive. They go from landscape to social
issues, from remote and exotic scenes to things that happen around us but we
neglect or pay no attention to, from war to family life, from prostitutes and
freaks to AIDS patients. The meaning of documentary photography has also
experienced fundamental historical changes since the time photography came into
being around the 1850s (Langford, 1980). People have been arguing about whether
documentary photographs can tell the truth, whether photographs made with
massive or salient manipulation approaches can be called documentary, whether a
documentary photographer should be neutral or can also be impassioned, whether
documentary photography should serve the middle-class or the often
underprivileged subjects themselves, and how different documentary photography
is from propaganda, etc., etc. (Hurley, 1972; Stott, 1973; Cala, 1977; Becker,
1978; Sekula, 1984; Peeler, 1987; Rosler, 1989; Curtis, 1989). In short,
documentary photography is not so simple a term to define as it seems to be. The
muddy attributes of documentary photography make it almost an intellectual
impossibility to knit a definition that can be agreed upon by all. In his
article 'Defining Documentary Film,' Michael Weinberger wrote: "There is no, and
can be no, agreement on the definition of documentary film. If you resist my
definition, and therefore my conclusion, so be it. However, at a time when the
line between documentary and drama is being increasingly and intentionally
obscured, this attempt to isolate a more conclusive definition seems a
worthwhile challenge" (Weinberger, 1996). This, I am afraid, is also the case
when we attempt to define documentary photography.
At the time when the term "documentary photography" was coined, the naming
was immediately brought into dispute. Never satisfied with that word
"documentary," Dorothea Lange, a then established documentary photographer from
the FSA, once appealed to photography historian Beaumont Newhall, who served as
head of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art at that time,
to find a better word. "We rejected the word 'historical' because of its
connotation with the remote past," Newhall said (Meltzer, 1978, p. 160).
"'Factual' was too cold; it left out of account that magic power in a fine
photograph that makes people look at it again and again, and find new truths
with each looking. We groped, but never did find a single word which described
that quest for understanding, that burning desire to help people know one
another's problem, that drive for defining in pictures the truths, which is the
splendid essence of her work (Ibid.)." 'Realistic photography' was also once
considered as a substitute for documentary photography at that time, according
to Rothstein (1986).
Today, no one seems to have any disagreement on the naming. The problem,
however, is that there is almost no agreement on the semantic meaning of
documentary photography. Therefore, different attributes have been singled out
to be emphasized in different writings that give the definition to this
construct. Generally speaking, there are two camps of views. One favors the
attribute of subjectivity of photographic representation while the other sees
more objectivity in the documentary approach.
According to Beaumont Newhall, although the camera's value in making visual
records was accepted from the beginning of the invention of photographic
technology in 1839, the word "documentary" in connection with photography did
not come into use until 1905 in France (Meltzer, 1978, p. 160). To Newhall,
documentary was an approach rather than an end, with the end "a serious
sociological purpose." In an article of 1938, he wrote that a documentary
photographer is "first and foremost ... a visualizer. He puts into pictures what
he knows about, and what he thinks of, the subject before his camera ... But he
will not photograph dispassionately ... he will put into his camera studies
something of the emotion which he feels toward the problem, for he realizes that
this is the most effective way to teach the public he is addressing. After all,
is not this the root-meaning of the word 'document' (docere, to teach)? (Ibid.)"
Newhall further stressed on emotional impact when he later wrote that the
importance of documentary photographs " lies in their power not only to inform
us but to move us ... The aim is to persuade and to convince (Ibid.)." This
desire to rouse the viewer of the photograph to an "active interpretation of the
world in which we live" is what distinguishes the best documentary work from
"bald" camera records, he concludes (Ibid.). To sum up, Newhall saw an active
role of a documentary photographer in interpreting reality for photograph
viewers. This is also the case with the conceptual definition given by the
Time-Life Book editors (1980) in their book Documentary Photography when they
wrote: documentary photography is "a depiction of the real world by a
photographer whose intent is to communicate something of importance--to make a
comment--that will be understood by the viewer."
Around the same time period when Newhall initiated the definition of
documentary photography, Dorothea Lange made a much more comprehensive
explanation on what documentary photography had come to embrace by that time.
Lange's conceptual definition touched many aspects such as documentary
photography's objective, attributes, subject matter, methods, participants and
Documentary photography records the social scene of our time. It
present and documents for the future. It s focus is man in his relation to
records his customs at work, at war, at play, or his round of activities
twenty-four hours of the day, the cycle of the seasons, or the span of a
portrays his institutions--family, church, government, political
clubs, labor unions. It shows not merely their facades, but seeks to reveal
the manner in
which they function, absorb the life, hold the loyalty, and influence the
human beings. It is concerned with methods of work and the dependence of
workmen on each
other and on their employers. It is pre-eminently suited to build a record
of change. Adv
ancing technology raises standards of living, creates unemployment, changes
the face of
cities and of the agricultural landscape. The evidence of these trends--the
existence of past, present, and portent of the future--is conspicuous in
old and new
forms, old and new customs, on every hand. Documentary photography stands
on its own
merits and has validity by itself. A single photographic print may be
"portrait," "art," or "documentary"--any of these, all of them, or none.
Among the tools
of social science-graphs, statistics, maps, and text--documentation by
photography now is
assuming place. Documentary photography invites and needs participation by
well as by professionals. Only through the interested work of amateurs who
and follow them can documentation by the camera of our age and our complex
intimate, pervasive, and adequate (quoted in Coles, 1982, p. 124).
Here, we see a more objective take on documentary photography. Lange was a
strong proponent of the "hands-off" principle. Gifford Hampshire, head of the
Documerica documentary project in 1972, gave his definition in a similar vein:
documentary photography, "is an honest approach by an individual who knows
enough about the subject to establish its significance in present time and
environment and for posterity" (quoted in Rothstein, 1986). Another good example
is the five criteria set up by Weinberger when he defined documentary film: "(1)
it must attempt to tell a true story in a non-dramatic fashion; (2) it must
appear to do so by presenting only factual evidence; (3) it must not attempt to
re-create the truth (though some would defend the validity of this method); (4)
it must claim objectivity; (5) most importantly, (and perhaps most difficult to
ascertain) it must, as closely as possible, present all factual evidence in its
original context (Weinberger, 1996)."
Some other definitions took a more balanced approach in suggesting the
issue of objectivity and subjectivity in documentary photography. A case in
point can be found in Michael Langford's The Story of Photography: From Its
Beginning to the Present Day: "Documentary photography means pictures of actual
situations and events, although composition, choice of moment etc., may be used
to help communicate the photographer's own point of view. Hopefully this means
he has researched and understood his subject, and will recognize what is
significant, what points need to be made... (1980, p. 80)."
Subjectivity vs. objectivity has been an evergreen topic in photographic
communities. Critic James Hugunin (1984) described traditional documentary
photography as being based on assumptions that the photograph represents a
one-to-one correspondence with reality and that the viewer is a receptive
subject that takes in the objective information of the world through the
photograph. Hugunin's implication is that documentary photography creates
certain expectations of factual truth on the part of the viewer.
While there is certainly a body of literature that continues to discuss
documentary in terms of reality and objectivity, more authors argue for the
subjective attribute of documentary. Trachtenberg (1989) argues that
photographic subjectivity implies that whatever values and/or meaning that the
photographer or photographic elite feels have been built in to the photograph
will not necessarily be interpreted in the same manner by all viewers of the
image. This is because photographs are not simple depictions of visual
surroundings but instead are constructions selectively made by photographers
employing their medium to make sense of their society. Therefore, while the
photographic image is a witness, it is not a value-free witness. The photograph
testifies not only to the facts of a scene but also to the photographer's
choices; the images are nothing but the expression of the invisible person
working behind the camera (Peeler, 1990).
Documentary photography is usually referred to the practice of
nonfictional photographic representation of reality and the materialization of
such practice--documentary photographs. For the convenience of exposition, this
concept is often directly referred to documentary photographs themselves.
According to the Dictionary of Contemporary Photography, documentary photography
is "[t]he specialization of making motion pictures or still photographs of a
nonfictional nature with an emphasis on realism, often for formal or informal
educational purposes (Stroebel, 1974, p. 55)." The negation signified by the
prefix 'non' in the term 'nonfictional' is conceptually very clear: namely, that
nonfictional is what is not fictional. Put quite simply then, the narrative must
purport to be factual. For instance, if, in a union speech, people all see and
only see Clinton, Gore and Gingrich on the rostrum, a photograph whose visual
field is wide enough to cover all of them three, then, should be able to show,
or at least suggestively show, all these three persons and only themselves. None
of them should be played by anyone else like in a feature film, and none of them
should be missing through technical handling in the darkroom or on the computer.
In a broad sense, all photographs taken without intentional tricks like
mounting special-effect filter on a lens when taking a picture, or creating
special effects like embroidery, high-key, low-key or retouching film in the
post-production procedure, are documentary in nature. In this sense, all such
photographs including a large part of high art photographs, and almost all news
photographs can be counted as documentary photographs. Also in this sense, any
staged and posed photographs such as feature film clips, false news photographs,
studio portraits, etc., can also be counted as documentary photographs, simply
because such "photographs do not actually lie but only say precisely what the
camera sees" (Goldberg, 1991, p. 19). In a narrow sense, documentary photographs
are only referred to those that are not only factual but also have sociological
significance or intention.
In history, there have been two threads of documentary practice in
photography. The first serves the immediate purposes. By proving something is
wrong, or causing damage, or beneficial to humankind, it attempts to bring up
social attention on the object(s) being depicted so as to make people take
actions to change or prevent, or support and encourage certain situation.
Tentatively, we call this type documentary photographs "issue documentary."
Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine's photographs are good examples in this sub-category.
The other thread refers to those photographs with the objective of preserving
for current generation, mostly posterity a visual record of the social scenes
that will never be seen. Such photographs do not necessarily have the intention
of demanding social reform. Tentatively, we call this type of photographs
"preservation documentary." John Thompson, Eugene Atget, and later, Garry
Winogrand, and Diane Arbus's photographs are such examples. "Issue documentary"
and "preservation documentary" are usually regarded, either explicitly or
implicitly in scholarly writings, as two sub-categories of documentary
photography. There are many other examples such as FSA project and Robert
Frank's The Americans that overlap these two categories, but they have all
developed out of them and have an emphasis on the attributes of either category.
Since documentary is almost always involved with social issues, "social
documentary" has often been used as a synonym for documentary photography.
Documentary dealing with personal issues can be called personal documentary.
A documentary photograph in a narrow sense suggests that there must be
someone or something out there to be documented by a photographer with a still
camera, and this documentation process from picture-taking to darkroom
processing is not tinted by photographic tricks, and people are taken picture of
in their natural settings instead of in an artificial setting such as a studio.
This is a necessity for the construct to exist. Such restriction makes us able
to exclude from documentary photography many art photographs that pursue for
special photographic effects like juxtaposition, double or multiple images in
one single photograph, high-key or low-key effect, etc. Also excluded are studio
portraits, movie stills, and so on.
The most difficult to differentiate are news photographs and documentary
photographs, simply because documentary photographers have taken print media
extensively as its basic publishing platform since the 1930's. On the other
hand, all news photographs are documentary photographs in the broad sense. Since
there are diversified understandings of documentary photography, it is indeed
hard to differentiate empirically these two types of photographic practice. But
the following hints may, though not always, provide us some clues to see the
empirical differences between the two.
1. News photographs emphasize news values mainly by showing something
recent while documentary photographs do not have this burden. The latter
emphasizes social and historical values often by showing something of social
significance but that is not necessarily tied to any immediate practical use.
2. Because of the different emphases of values, news photographs and
documentary photographs usually have different subject matters. The former often
reports events on the micro level such as a conference, a fire, a homicide, a
snowstorm, a negotiation, so on and so forth. The latter, however, often shows
things on the macro level (not necessarily events) that contain important
information about a society or a historical period such as what an ethnicity
such as Indian people is like in a certain period, how child labor is being
exploited in a community, what unnoticed social problems were like in the 50s
3. News photographs are made for a certain newspaper or magazine and for
certain groups of readers while most documentary photographs are not supposed to
be anything in particular since the work is not made for anyone in particular
who can have enforced such requirement except for those government or
organization sponsored projects.
4. All news photographs are published on print media, but documentary
photographs are scattered all around both in print media and in other platforms
such as museum, book, union lobby, and so on. When documentary photographs are
published in print media, they are usually a tiny sample of a big collection of
photographs and the story around them.
5. News photographs have limited quantity because of limited space.
Documentary photographs, on the other hand, are usually huge in quantity so as
to be able to contain macro-level information.
Documentary photography is a discrete construct. In any studies about its
definition, some discontinuous categories, such as documentary photography, art
photography, news photography or photojournalism, visual sociology, are needed
to form a nominal scale.
Photographers usually have a clear-cut style of their own as the trade-mark
of their photographs. That is, they usually claim themselves to be a documentary
photographer, a postmodernist photographer, a straight photographer, or a
pictorialist, etc. Therefore, it is not inappropriate to take a photographer's
collection of photographs as a unit of observation. Although the term
'documentary photography' is often assigned to particular photographs in
reference to other photographs, it is, generally speaking, observable for an
individual photographer's collection of photographs. In other words, you can
decide if a certain group of pictures are documentary photographs by reading the
pictures together with any accompanying text that is relevant. The construct
documentary photography embodies a series of abstract ideas, but it is
materialized into concrete photographs, therefore, made tangible.
By reviewing all the expositions cited above about documentary photography,
we can find that, though people have different expectations for documentary
photography, and have different usage of it, they do seem to agree that a
documentary photograph should at least be a factual, that is, non-fictional
representation of reality though subjectivity is inevitably involved in all
pictures. Oftentimes we see two levels of uses of this construct. One is the
narrow-sense use under which covered are only those factual photographs serving
the purpose of providing evidence in certain sociological sense. And the other
is the broad-sense use under which covered are not only narrow-sense documentary
photographs, but also news photographs and many other photographs that are
factual in nature. My study interest lies in the narrow-sense use of the
construct, therefore, news photography or photojournalism, or art photography is
not covered in this study.
Since manipulation has been widely practiced in documentary photography to
serve a photographer's subjective interpretation of reality, a large portion of
widely acclaimed documentary photographs will be excluded from documentary
photography if manipulation is accepted as a criterion to define documentary
photography. Therefore, the factor of manipulation has to be discounted in the
process of defining although it is not looked upon as something desirable by any
The truth value is not solely decided by image makers because readers often
take an active role in the interpretation of image meanings, therefore, the
truth or untruth of content is not at issue in defining documentary photography.
Although it is not difficult to find examples of pro-subjectivity,
pro-objectivity and mixture definitions of documentary photography, none of them
so far seems to have shown enough respect for the obvious fact that there have
been two threads of documentary practice in history-- "issue documentary" and
"preservation documentary." A serious definition should take such difference
Based on the analysis of the existing literature about the uses and
definitions of documentary photography, I believe that documentary photography
is an extensive factual photographic representation of human conditions or
human-environment relations of social and/or historical significance with the
intention of providing sociological evidence. Based on such evidential function,
some documentary photographs are invested with social comments while others aim
at preserving social scenes that are thought to be important to the contemporary
generation or are never to be seen again for posterity.
Any individual photographer's photographs that can be claimed to be
documentary photographs, thus classified into the category of documentary
photography, must meet the following four criteria:
1. They are taken and processed without resorting to photographic tricks
such as using juxtaposition or multiplying images in one single photograph,
generating high-key or low-key, etc.;
2. They are an integrated series of photographs;
3. They present factual evidence and have non-fictional narrative,
demonstrating a photographer's integrity;
4. They make a visual representation of human conditions or
human-environment relations of social and/or historical significance no matter
whether the nature of such conditions or relations is good or bad.
Objectivity, truth, and propaganda -- From a positivist perspective
Positivism generally refers to any system that confines itself to the data
of experience and excludes a priori metaphysical speculations. It aims at
clarifying the meanings of basic concepts (as I did above in defining
documentary photography) and assertions and not to attempt to answer
unanswerable questions such as those regarding the nature of ultimate reality or
of the Absolute. What positivism recommends positively is a logic and
methodology of the basic assumptions and of the validation procedures of
knowledge and of evaluation.
The questions that positivists would ask about documentary photography
would be: How are documentary photographs produced? Who produced them? For whom?
And with what effect? This Lasswellian model has been around for decades in
documentary photography studies. The core issues involved are: Can documentary
photographs be objective? Or are they just doing propaganda?
The decade of the 1930s was an era that placed a high value on documentary,
and its documentary ideal was "the supposedly objective eye of the camera"
(Goldberg, 1991, p. 34). For instance, Arthur Rothstein claims that "[t]he
reality seen before the lens by the documentary photographer is recorded
objectively on the sensitive emulsion with a comment by the photographer on the
truth perceived" (1986, p. 19).
Here, it is extremely important for us to see what objectivity meant to the
FSA photographers by examining their photographic philosophies and ways of
representation. FSA photographers emphasized the principle of "hands-off," that
is, conducting no manipulation in the process of photographic production so as
to reach objectivity. Rothstein believed that "life is so exciting that it
needs no further embellishment" (Schuneman, 1972, p. 191). In Documentary
Photography, the last book he wrote, Rothstein said: "If a selection is made, it
is done in a balanced way to prevent misinterpretation of the truth. The
techniques used are straightforward, without artificial manipulation" (1986, p.
34). His colleague Walker Evans also advocated unmanipulative approaches. For
Evans, documentary is "stark record," and any alteration or manipulation of the
facts, for propaganda or other reasons, he considered "a direct violation of our
tenets" (Stott, 1973, p. 269). Dorothea Lange, who thought of herself as a
clinical observer, committed to a direct, unmanipulated recording of
contemporary events, simply put up a quotation from Francis Bacon on her
The contemplation of things as they are
Without substitution or imposture
Without error or confusion
Is in itself a nobler thing
Than a whole harvest of invention.
What is ironic is that the practice of image manipulation was popular if
not pervasive among FSA photographers in spite of their non-manipulation claims.
They either staged or posed still life, or human subjects, or both, or
re-touched the film. For instance, Rothstein resorted to massive manipulation in
his famous Skull, Badlands, South Dakota, 1936 by dragging around the skull as
something like a prop (Curtis, 1989). Eliot Elisofan paid two youngsters to pose
for him as though they were hitching rides on the back of a streetcar (Peeler,
1987, p. 92). Walker Evans manipulated his subjects and arranged scenes to fit
both his artistic tastes and interpretive intent (Peeler, 1987, p. 93; Curtis,
1989, p. 40-43). Lange was concerned with a deep sense of aesthetics, which led
her to retouch a thumb from the lower right corner of the famous "mother"
picture (Doherty, 1976, p. 80). Post Wolcott, on the other hand, actively
selected and juxtaposed, or to use her own word, "slant[ed]" things in the
viewfinder to get the maximum amount of suffering in photographs (Peeler, 1987,
p. 80). More manipulation examples can be found in Delano and Vachon's
How come, then, there was such a salient double talk? That is, why is there
a discrepancy between what the FSA photographers believed and what they did? And
how did they see their manipulation? Again, let's start with a comment made by
Rothstein. When approaching the subject of manipulation, Rothstein said:
There is no such thing as absolute purity in photography, ... In terms
actually posing a subject, or staging an event, no, I prefer to shoot
my boss, Roy Stryker, once said--and I agree--that there are times when you
to pose a photograph. Stryker recommended that, since truth is not
absolute, but a
balance of elements, if you're going to set up something, at least go
through the motions
of what leads up to the photograph. If you want to catch truth in the posed
shot, he sai
d, you'd best go through the operation (quoted in Cala, 1977).
From this statement, we can find that Rothstein's version of truth is a
balance of elements through manipulation of camera operation -- presenting truth
is not equivalent to mechanical recording. Rothstein was not alone with such an
interpretation of objectivity. Jack Delano argued that a documentary photograph
should not be "nature in the raw"; the photographer must refine his composition
by eliminating all extraneous images so that the final product does not merely
reflect, but is "an expression of the essence" of, the photographer's vision
(Peeler, 1987, p. 91). In the same token, Russell Lee was sustained by the
belief that he should photograph Oklahoma not as it was, but as he and Steinbeck
thought it should be (Ibid., p. 92). Rothstein, Evans, and many other FSA
photographers, all knew that total objectivity was impossible. Peeler had a
piercing analysis of FSA's truth philosophy. When he discussed Vachon's
photographic ideas, Peeler wrote:
Documentary photographers of the 1930s believed that one of their
tasks was to
portray thirties America. But like Vachon, they insisted that the truth
Depression was not something that simply appeared in front of a
the "true or typical situation" was what Vachon or any other photographer
believed it to
be; the scene before the camera was a pliable on that the photographer
according to his own notion of just what the truth should be. America stood
before them as
an infinite set of images from which the photographer could pick and
choose according to
his inner vision, and if the country did not cooperatively provide scenes
to that vision, then it was up to the photographer to arrange the setting
Consequently, the "reality" seen by FSA photographers as "true," as Peeler
said, was "synonymous with the photographer's vision," was captured to validate
their own political positions, "and the photographer could justifiably control
the subjects and arrange the scene so that they corresponded to his conception"
(1987, p. 94). It is obvious that FSA photographers were hardly passive image
makers. They considered camera as an extension of the their own ordering and
arranging eye rather than an instrument of blind truth, as Peeler put it. Their
eyes, their mind, and their heart commanded them to capture whatever they
thought was true, and if necessary, use manipulation approaches to make things
look true to their own perception. Their objective truth was negotiated by their
Sekula (1984) said: "The rhetorical strength of documentary is imagined to
reside in the unequivocal character of the camera's evidence, in an essential
realism. The theory of photographic realism emerges historically as both product
and handmaiden of positivism. Vision, itself unimplicated in the world it
encounters, is subjected to a mechanical idealization." FSA team and some other
photographers in the 1930s believe that the viewer is a receptive subject taking
in the objective information of the world through the photograph, and that the
photograph is transparent and presents itself as the thing itself (Curtis,
1989). Margaret Bourke-White, a well-known documentary photographer in the '30s
to '40s, also seriously believed that the camera, as a machine, can convey
messages transparently and passively in ways that writing or
painting--non-machines--never can. "With a camera," explained Margaret
Bourke-White, "the shutter opens and closes and the only rays that come in to be
registered come directly from the object in front... On the other hand, writing
is not so direct and mechanical, whatever facts a person writes have to be
colored by his prejudice, and bias" (quoted in Stott, 1973, p. 31-32). Stott
regards such claims as naive and irrelevant. "Actually," said Stott, "there is
bias in most photographs, especially documentary photographs, and Bourke-White's
among them. She exaggerated the impersonality of the medium; because the process
that makes a photo is mechanical, she claimed that the results are wholly
objective, an error common in the thirties" (Ibid., p. 32). The New Deal
opponents further criticized FSA photographs such as Rothstein's Skull as
propaganda (Unknown, 1955).
Nevertheless, are FSA photographs objective, after all? The answer, I
believe, depends on how you define objectivity. Positivism emphasizes an
adequate understanding of the functions of language and of the various types of
meaning. In this respect, Allan Megill's 'Four Senses of Objectivity' might
serve as a useful guide in our answering this question. Megill warns that those
who claim to offer some sort of "resolution" to "the problem of objectivity"
"are either unaware of the theoretical complexities involved in "the problem of
objectivity" or overconfident in their notions of what theory can accomplish"
(1994, p. 12). In this article, Megill listed and analyzed four types of
There is firstly a philosophical or absolute sense of objectivity.
This type of
objectivity derives from (although it is not identical with) the ideal of
things as they really are" that has played an important role in the modern
tradition. It aspires to a knowledge so faithful to reality as to suffer no
and toward which all inquirers of good will are destined to converge.
Secondly, there is
a disciplinary sense, which no longer assumes a wholesale convergence and
consensus among the members of particular research communities as its
objectivity. Thirdly, there is an interactional or dialectical sense, which
objects are constituted as objects in the course of an interplay between
object; thus unlike the absolute and disciplinary senses, the dialectical
room for the subjectivity of the knower. Finally, there is a procedural
sense, which aims
at the practice of an impersonal method of investigation or administration
(Ibid., p. 1).
According to Megill, most people, actually, refer to the objectivity in the
absolute sense when they address such an issue. Stott's charge of Bourke-White's
view of objectivity and an implicit comment on FSA work's objectivity apparently
is a case in point. Now does FSA work fit in the third sense of objectivity?
Fabian is one of the proponents of the objectivity in this dialectical sense.
Fabian sees objectivity as the result of a process of knowledge production that
involves "objectification;" and in this process, Fabian concludes that
positivistic approaches, that is, the objective approaches in the absolute
sense, conceal everything that is important about objectivity because positivism
wrongly assumes that social scientific knowledge is based on facts that are
simply "there" (Ibid., p. 8-9). Skidmore also expressed a similar opinion when
he said: "Pure objectivity does not carry us very far. As soon as an answer to
one of these questions comes in terms of will, choice, belief, value, and so on,
we are out of the realm of objectivity and face to face with human motives,
which do not respond well to objective research. Thus it is that the
subjectivist position gains its strength" (1979, p. 25). Denying absolute
objectivity is not to deny objectivity generally. "Dialectical objectivity," as
Megill said, "involves a positive attitude toward subjectivity. The defining
feature of dialectical objectivity is the claim that subjectivity is
indispensable to the constituting of objects. Associated with this feature is a
preference for 'doing' over 'viewing'" (1994, p. 8). This "doing" vs. "viewing"
distinction seem to be directly referring to the manipulation of the FSA
photographers done in their visual representation of the thirties America
according to their own understanding of what the truth was. The photographers'
subjective input finds its justification here. Therefore, I argue that the FSA
objectivity philosophy falls exactly into this third category of Megill's
objectivity: dialectical objectivity. Rothstein may be wrong in many of his
claims about objectivity but he is right when he claimed that there is no
'absolute purity' in photography. The FSA photographs are objective in the sense
that the reality in these photographs is constructed both from the
photographers' mind and heart, and is not merely a mechanical record.
FSA team was sensitive to any charges of their making propaganda. Roy
Stryker avoided even talking about it, as though to deny its existence (Doherty,
1976, p. 10). Walker Evans seemed to be the FSA photographer most concerned that
his photographs not be considered "propaganda." He told an audience of Harvard
students many years later, "You're not--and shouldn't be, I think--trying to
change the world... saying, 'Open up your heart, and bleed for these people.' I
would never dream of saying anything like that..." (quoted in Guimond, 1991, p.
143). Rothstein, who was perhaps the most scholastically productive of all the
FSA photographers, wrote in 1986: "Sometimes ... documentary coverage is
mistaken for propaganda. The definition of propaganda is the spreading of ideas,
information, facts, or allegations, deliberately, to help or injure a cause, a
person, or an institution. The propagandist tries to be convincing, not
objective. The propagandist may distort, select, omit, and arrange material so
that the information is presented in a biased manner" (p. 33). Such sensitivity,
hatred and apprehensive self-defense are understandable because such charges had
the potential of shaking the photographers' assertions of telling the truth in
an objective way about what they saw.
Sociologists argue for "value-freedom" in research approaches. "In order to
discover what 'is,' it is necessary for the sociologist to bring no personal
prejudice about social relations to his study... If disinterestedness is not
maintained, what one believes 'ought' to be may get in the way of what 'is';
dogma would interfere with thought. Alternatively, the sociologist not wishing
to be value-free could turn sociological theory into propaganda" (Skidmore,
1979, p. 32). Unfortunately, documentary photographers' production methods
usually belong to the latter case. Documentary photographs are both informative
and affective. Unlike sociological empirical studies, documentary photography is
meant to work both on readers' sense and sensibilities. Moreover, many
documentary photographers cannot resist the temptation of making art in their
photographs which are meant to be documentary in nature. As Curtis said when
he analyzed the FSA work: "Too much emphasis on artistic creativity or
individual vision implied subjectivity and would undermine the veracity of the
finished product. No wonder documentarians so often dodged the issue of art
versus reality!" (1989, p. 24) The aim to persuade, coupled with the desire
of making art, always makes a documentary photographer resort to salient
subjective selections, or even manipulations. It is exactly this subjectivity
that gives any potential opponents a handle to accuse documentary photography of
In reality, to distinguish exactly between propaganda and information is
hard, if not impossible. "Almost all social utterances," as Stott claims,
"involve propaganda because almost all seek to influence opinion" (1973, p. 23).
Stott would agree absolutely with Newhall that it is not information that the
documentary photograph supplies, but an inescapably "biased" form of
communication that is equally present in all forms of exposition. In their
simplest terms, Stott's hypotheses rest upon the recognition that the so-called
information in documentary photography is always biased. To some extent, Stott
is right, because under a photographer's passion, sentiment, emotion, and facts
may well be juxtaposed to serve the purposes of persuasion, and this is exactly
the case with FSA. Although Stryker would shy at the use of the word propaganda,
it is clear that he began to understand its potential in the twenties and then
devoted the remainder of his life to practicing the art of its use (Doherty,
1976). It may not be incidental that Franklin Roosevelt also advocated publicity
that "can right a lot of wrongs" although he avoided its tainted name
'propaganda' (Stott, 1973, p. 26). FSA team, as with Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
ahead of them, and as with Eugene Smith following them, were trying to both
influence their audience's intellect and feelings by the social comments
invested in their photographs. Around the fall of 1940, when the depression was
largely over, Stryker asked his photographers to make what Evans called
hard-core propaganda (though the photographers themselves did not seem to be
interested in doing that), that is, "to illustrate popular, reassuring clich s
about America: that there were plenty of young men available to work in
factories and build bridges, that old people were contented and secure, and so
forth" (Guimond, 1991, p. 138-139). No matter whether the FSA team liked the
idea of propaganda or not, propaganda was in fact their common mode of
Now, the question we need to ask is: Is propaganda all bad, misleading, or
vicious? To quote Goldberg, "[t]he word propaganda means nothing more than
dissemination of some doctrine, originally that of the Roman Catholic Church.
The negative connotation has been added over time. If the doctrine is your own,
disseminating it is good public relations; if someone else's, it's propaganda"
(1991, p. 24). Interestingly, Stott also dissected propaganda into two half, but
in a little different way. On the one hand, there is black propaganda, put
forward by a covert source, using vilification and lies to spread dissension
among the group it addresses, such as the German and Italian Fascists'
propaganda that was built of big lies; on the other hand, there is white
propaganda, put forward from an overt source, using actual fact to educate its
audience, such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Spanish Earth. There are all
shades of gray in between (1973, p. 23). "Few people in the thirties made these
distinctions: then propaganda per se was evil" (Ibid.).
As a way of communication, all photographs contain information as well as
the elements of persuasion. Therefore, a condemnation of propaganda as being
intrinsically evil is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of
communication. Stott and Goldberg's positivist thinking provides us new ways of
looking at the phenomenon of propaganda, especially its positive aspect.
Context -- from a social constructivist perspective
Documentary photographs are definitely not mechanical recording of reality.
A photographer's way of seeing is framed by his or her values and goals, and/or
by those of his or her employer's or client's, and by influential photographers
who set the pattern for others on some important dimensions such as artistic
style, subject matter emphasis, way of presentation, and so on. Social
constructivism is interested in how people, mainly image producers, come to
agree upon some preferred definition of reality. Therefore, the questions they
would ask would include: Who is taking pictures? How do they mean to locate that
work in some work organization? Conversely, what kind of work and which people
do they mean to exclude? In short, what are they trying to accomplish by talking
this way (also see Becker, 1996)?
When photographers are making images, they almost always draw boundaries
around the activities, saying where they belong organizationally, establishing
who is in charge, who is responsible for what, and who is entitled to what
(Becker, 1996). Documentary photography would carry different meanings to
photographers working for a government organization like FSA, for privately
owned mass media like Margaret Bourke-White, and for themselves like Eugene
Atget. It would also carry different meanings to photographers working in
journalism like Eugene Smith, doing visual sociology like Douglas Harper, and
working in the traditions of fine arts like Henri Cartier-Bresson. In short, the
meaning of documentary photographs arises in the organizations the photographs
are used in, out of the joint action of all the people involved in those
organizations, and so varies from time to time and place to place. Photographs
get their meaning from the way the people involved with them understand them,
use them, and thereby attribute meaning to them. Meaning is socially
Walker (1977) describes to us a picture of how photographic images are made
within a social context when he writes:
The process by which photographic images are produced and
disseminated, and the
economic arrangements underlying that process, exert a powerful influence
over the type
of images that are made available to the public. The photographer
consciously selects a
given aspect of society to photograph. Writers, editors, and publishers
certain works and disseminate them in a particular manner. Finally,
historians apply the
official stamp of approval when they confirm the idea that certain images
documentation of a given time and place in history.
Walker singled out Jacob Riis to illustrate his points. He argued that
Riis's choice of subjects reflected his own understanding of the political
economy of documentary photography. Riis sought to arouse the conscience of
those who held political power. In his desire to portray members of the working
class as victims, Riis left certain things out of his photographs. He did not
choose, for example, to heighten the sense of injustice by juxtaposing images of
the poor with images of the wealthy. Rather than documenting social reality,
Riis's (Hine's as well) photographs accurately documented a political movement
(or movements) that was associated with liberal reform.
Riis helped establish two of the documentary traditions: the focus of
attention remains solidly fixed on the victims, and the victims are shown to the
other half to see. FSA photographs in the 1930s showed victims in the rural
areas to the urban residents and the Washington bureaucratic. Diane Arbus's
collection of freaks in the 1950s offered an opportunity for middle class to see
"how the other half lives." The other half, in this case, was defined more in
terms of cultural life style than in terms of economic class. The various
political struggles in the 1960's D the civil-rights and black-power movements,
the anti-war and New Left movementsD produced an outpouring of partisan and
committed documentary photography. But much of this work was aimed at people who
did not participate in the struggles directly. It became, in a sense,
documentation of "how the other half protests" (Ibid.).
Now let's come back to the example of Rothstein's Skull picture. After he
joined the RA team, Rothstein was greatly influenced by his art-oriented
colleagues such as Walker Evans and Ben Shahn. "He admired the attention to
detail so evident in the work of Evans, and the sense of identification and
sympathy with which Shahn and Lange approached their subjects (Dixon, 1983, p.
119)." We may not be going too far to speculate that Skull was mainly inspired
by Evans's gorgeous still life style which greatly influenced the FSA
photographer team. But what is most important of all is that Rothstein's Skull
and almost all the other FSA photographers' work were tremendously influenced by
Roy Stryker's thinking and the government's goals and needs. Carl Mydans was
speaking for many photographers when he said, "No one ever worked for him for
any length of time without carrying some of Roy Stryker with him" (Rothstein,
1986, p. 36). As a matter of fact, Skull conformed to Resettlement
Administration instructions that whenever possible, photographs should include
evidence of land misuse and mismanagement (see Curtis, 1973, p. 71). It is hard
to imagine that Stryker would have congratulated Rothstein after he saw those
skull pictures in Washington D.C. simply because of their high artistic
quality. And it is equally hard to imagine that the FSA bureaucrat in D.C.
would be satisfied with Rothstein as a government employee in only demonstrating
his artistic talent in the photographs at the government's expenditure. In a
word, Skull must have been expected both by Rothstein and FSA to serve
government purposes, that is, to serve as evidence of certain truth assertions
such as land misuse or mismanagement.
It is easy to observe the organizational structure set up for the FSA work
when we compare the early work and the late work done by the FSA photographers.
From 1935 to roughly 1938, the FSA work presented destitute farmers,
sharecroppers, and migrant "Okies" as passive victims so as to implant awareness
and hopefully arouse actions among the urban residents to provide help to those
who were in need of it. By the late 1930's a quite different tone began to creep
into the images, one of conservative nationalism. This trend is particularly
evident in the photographs of Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Walcott.
Rothstein's images are of good simple folk--healthy, happy, and productive.
Wolcott's images, meanwhile, convey a sense of reverence for the beauty of the
American landscape. The sense of human suffering and of the rape of the land, so
strong in earlier FSA images, was definitely muted.
Corresponding to the framing nature of documentary work done by the
government, any such photographic endeavor tended to be distrusted as propaganda
by the media and the public in the 1930s. A film distributor who refused to
handle The River, a documentary film also made by the Roosevelt government, said
that had it been made by a private company "it would be a documentary film. When
the government makes it, it automatically becomes a propaganda picture (quoted
in Stott, 1973, p. 24)." Many magazines and newspapers were hesitant in using
government-financed photographs, feeling that government photography must
necessarily be very slanted or propagandistic in nature, thus, untrue (also see
Hurley, 1972, p. 123).
As Blyton (1987) argued: "The range of possible orientations of
photographer and client, the ways the subjects of the photography may respond to
having their picture taken, and the possible languages the viewer may adopt in
'reading' the final photograph together offer considerable scope for a whole
series of 'truths' to be created by the simple chemical action of exposing
surfaces of silver halides to light." Context gives images meaning. If the work
does not provide context, viewers will provide it, or not, from their own
Truth and the politics of representation -- from a Marxist perspective
The modern era is marked by an investment in the corrosive power of
objectivity and truth. Documentary photography has often been regarded as having
the capacity, unique among the graphic media, to provide direct access to
"truth." The photograph is seen as a re-presentation of nature itself, as an
unmediated copy of the real world. The medium itself is considered transparent.
"The propositions carried through the medium are unbiased and therefore true"
(Sekula, 1984). Revealing truth has become the paramount criterion for
distinguishing documentary and non-documentary (Weinberger, 1996).
FSA photographers were motivated by an obligation to truth. To
photographers like Rothstein, truth is equivalent to reality or fact, something
out there, and can be objectively recorded by a documentary photographer. Such
interpretation of this statement is supported by another statement made by
Rothstein: "[F]or many of us the thirties journalistic catch-phrase 'I Was
There,' is often enough (quoted in Cala, 1977)." But is that really enough? If
yes, why do we often see so many photographs all taken by skilled photographers
from the same scene or event with different or even contradictory messages? Who,
then, is really telling the truth? Truth about what? Truth might come in the
form of a single fact, but is there any guarantee that an aggregate of facts
will adequately describe the truth? Are all the truth claims equally valid? We
need to be cautious in answering such questions.
Representation is a tricky social activity because it always involves a
certain degree of abstraction, that is, the taking away of one characteristic or
more of the original. On the one hand, since every object and event has an
indefinitely large array of qualities, there is no point at which a description,
a process of abstraction, of it would be completed. On the other hand, if
everything that existed were continually being represented, for instance,
photographed, every photograph would become meaningless. Representing an object
or an event with a selected and limited array of information is, thus, a highly
Representation necessarily involves politics. Making representations with
immaculate meanings is impossible. "No one has ever devised a method for
detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his
involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social
position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society" (Said, 1980,
p. 10). All photography today comes under the gaze of a piercing political eye,
and photographers are already in politics. As Victor Burgin said: "The only
imaginable non-political being is a totally self-sufficient hermit. The
photographer who has chosen to live in a society and enjoy its benefits, even
though he also chooses to put on blinkers when he squints into a viewfinder, is
willy-nilly an actor in a political situation" (quoted in Webster, 1980, p.
145). This is why matters of truth have become more and more questions about
faith, belief and conviction in recent decades.
Marxist approaches have focused on the power relations behind
representations. Martha Rosler's article 'in, around, and afterthoughts on
documentary photography' is a good example of such an approach though a
postmodernist perspective is added when she analyzed her own Bowery work. The
tenet of the article was to call into question aspects of documentary as a
strategy for "truth" already under attack from many quarters. The major
criticisms on the traditional documentary photography made in this article can
be summarized into the following four points.
First, documentary carries information about a group of powerless people to
another group addressed as socially powerful. Documentary images are meant to be
consumed by a middle class with the leisure and money allowing for such
consumption. They are not addressed to the members of the underprivileged. For
instance, Hine's child labor photographs addressed his concern over poor working
conditions to an essentially middle-class, reform-minded audience, rather than
seeking to raise workers' own consciousness of their situation (also see Blyton,
1987, p. 419). Documentary transforms threat into fantasy, and into imagery that
are rendered vivid, human, and most often, poignant to the audience. An audience
can enjoy the imagery while leaving it behind at the same time (It is them, not
us.), and as a private person, may even support the causes. Voyeurism has been a
major ingredient in the documentary tradition.
Second, documentary photography has been much more comfortable in the
company of moralism than wedded to a rhetoric or program of revolutionary
politics. Documentary photographers have been strongly motivated by the worry
that the ravages of poverty such as crime, immorality, prostitution, disease,
and radicalism would threaten the health and security of polite society as well
as by sympathy for the poor. They appeal for the practice of charity such as
providing free and compulsory public education. This appeal represents an
argument within a class about the need to give a little in order to mollify the
dangerous classes below. Poverty and oppression are almost invariably equated
with misfortunes caused by natural disasters: causality is vague, blame is not
assigned, and fate cannot be overcome.
Third, documentary images are made on the backs of the exploited. A
documentary image has two moments: 1. the "immediate," instrumental one, that
works as testimony and evidence to argue for or against a social practice and
its ideological-theoretical supports, and 2. the conventional
"aesthetic-historical" moment, in which the viewer's argumentativeness cedes to
the organismic pleasure afforded by the aesthetic "rightness" or well-formedness
of the image. It is this second moment, which is less definable in its
boundaries, that tends to put an emphasis on the symbolization of a historical
moment than on its explicitly or implicitly claimed objective: elevating the
victims out of quagmire. Rosler took Florence Thompson, the subject of Dorothea
Lange's famous picture Migrant Mother, as an example and asked a trenchant
question about all documentary: What happened to the subject in the photo?
Thompson's image in the thirties has been immortalized, thought to be not-her
and to have an independent life history, but Mrs. Thompson was said to get
$331.60 a month from Social Security and $44.40 for medical expenses in 1979.
"She is of interest solely because she is an incongruity, a photograph that has
aged; of interest solely because she is a postscript to an acknowledged work of
art" (Rosler, 1979, p. 76). Martha Rosler is convinced that photographing the
victims of a society exploits them and it is a collaboration with the system
responsible for their condition.
Finally, it is the photographer behind the camera, not the subject in the
story who becomes the focus of a documentary piece. Documentary testifies to the
bravery or the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a
situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or
combinations of these and saved us the trouble, or who, like the astronauts,
entertained us by showing us the places we never hope to go. The celebration of
the photographer's high humanist and artistic quality in image-making replaces a
critical understanding of the problems revealed in the story.
Rosler's Marxist analysis approach undermines the legitimacy of documentary
as a truth carrier and conveyor. It reveals the hidden political agenda that
serves the interest of the classes in power. Therefore, it precisely points out
why the men on the Bowery are no longer interested in immortality and stardom,
why both photographers and audience have lost interest in the
propaganda-suggestive documentary, and why "[t]he expos , the compassion and
outrage of documentary fueled by the dedication to reform has shaded over into
combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics,
trophy hunting--and careerism... aloofness has given way to a more generalized
nihilism" (Ibid., p. 72).
To extend Rosler's points, I would argue, a photographer's subjective
selections are confined and/or influenced by the dominant value system of a
society--the ideology. In any society, certain ideas are more influential than
others, just as certain cultural forms predominate over others. Such influential
ideas are, then, screened through and well sustained and accepted as truths
while the rest are repressed as false. Truth is, therefore, "produced only by
virtue of multiple forms of constraint (Sekula, 1984)." Different societies have
different regimes of truth, and their "general politics" of truth, "that is,"
explained Michel Foucault, "the types of discourse which it accepts and makes
function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish
true and false statements (1980, p. 131-133)." Ideas, cultures, and histories
cannot be seriously understood or studied without their force, or more
precisely, their configurations of power, also being studied. A truth to one
society may well sound like a lie to another. What is commonly circulated by
cultural discourse and exchange within a culture are varied "representations"
that are true only to that culture, to certain classes, or certain social
The crisis of representation -- from a postmodernist perspective
Postmodern photographers challenge the photograph as a reliable, or even
rational system of representation, and deny its aesthetic intent. Influenced by
contemporary French theorists such as Derrida and Barthes, Rosler (1989) argues
that photography is not a reliable way of documenting reality. Since "reality"
is always represented to us through symbol, it can never be known "as it is."
According to Rosler, the photographs are powerless to deal with the reality that
is totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology. She regards the supposed realism
of reform-minded photographers like Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and
the Walker Evans of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a hoax. Documentary
photographers in the postmodernist era are sore pressed to defend the very
activity of image making. They have been challenged with the questions like: Why
photograph? What is left to photograph? What does a photograph convey? Are we
any longer able to see the world except as reified image (also see Jussim, p.
Postmodernism is a highly contested construct whose very nature is
impossible to define in a unified, monolithic fashion (Harms and Dickens, 1996).
It means different things in different artistic media (Grundberg, 1991) and in
different disciplines (Dickens, David R. & Andrea Fontana, 1994).
Anthropologists George Marcus and Michael Fisher (1986) have perhaps provided
the best definition of the term as it is used in contemporary social inquiry
(also see Dickens and Fontana, 1994). They define postmodernism as a "crisis of
representation," where traditional standards no longer apply.
Postmodern methods of social inquiry mainly comprise two common sources:
semiotics--studies of signs--initiated by the Swiss linguist Ferinand de
Saussure, and poststructuralism--a theory of crisis of signification--for which
Derrida is primarily responsible. It is in front of these two methods that the
truth value of documentary has suffered vital challenges.
Roland Barthes revised Saussure's structuralist approach of studying
meaning, and set up a systematic model by which the negotiating, interactive
idea of meaning could be analyzed (a poststructuralist approach). At the heart
of Barthes's theory is the idea of two orders of signification: denotation and
connotation. Denotation refers to the commonsense, the dictionary meaning of a
sign (this was where Saussure primarily worked on), while connotation moves the
interpretation of meaning towards the subject or intersubjective. Denotation is
tangible, but connotation is not unambiguously stated in a picture.
In 1982, Rothstein expressed his strong conviction about photography when
he wrote for the dictionary Contemporary Photographer: "A photograph means the
same thing all over the world and no translator is required. Photography is
truly the world's most powerful universal language for transcending all
boundaries of race, polities, and nationality" (Walsh et al, 1982, p. 879). Such
a universal language conviction has long been a myth of photography and it still
has wide circulation. According to Rothstein's logic, a photographers' perceived
meaning would be automatically taken by readers as whatever it is. But is that
possible? In other words, does a photographer have control over the
interpretations of meaning of their photographs? Let's see what semiotics would
say about that.
Again, look at Rothstein's Skull. The denotation here refers to what we see
in the photograph: the skull, sunlight, cracked soil, shadow, the grayscale
colors, and the way these elements are combined. The connotation, on the other
hand, refers to the possible generalized conclusions we want to draw such as
misuse or mismanagement of land, and poor government agricultural policies, and
so on and so forth. One of the possible and strong connotations Skull brings
about is drought. Readers could easily decode the meaning of the four signs in
the picture in such a logical sequence: the strong sunlight, whose strength was
suggested by the dark skull shadow (connoting lack of rainwater) caused the
parched land; the parched land (connoting no harvest of anything), in turn,
caused the death of the steer; and the steer (connoting life) suggested that the
local people were leading a hard life because they had lost their steers both as
their labor force and as their food, that they were suffering the same hardship
the steer had suffered, and that they were facing the threat of death.
Readers may well agree with what a photograph denotes, but they would often
get quite different connotations out of the same photograph. Connotation is
largely arbitrary, and culturally bound. Because connotation works on the
subjective level, we are often not made consciously aware of it, and, thus, we
often easily read connotative values in a picture as denotative facts.
To be more specific, a photograph is iconic (in an icon the sign resembles
its object in some way, it looks or sounds like its referent), and not
arbitrary, so the paradigms involved are less well specified than they are in a
verbal syntagm. Photography works metonymically, rather than metaphorically, and
so does not draw attention to the "creativity" involved in its construction.
That is why it appears more "natural" and unbiased than a drawing. Documentary
photographs operate under a hidden sign marked "this really happened, see for
yourself." The selection of a photographed incident to represent or symbolize a
whole complex chain of events and meanings is a highly ideological procedure.
But, by appearing literally to reproduce the event as it really happened,
documentary photographs suppress their selective/given, neutral structure in
favor of that which is beyond question, beyond interpretation: the "real-world"
(see Hall, 1973).
Poststructuralism, with Derrida, goes a step further. It develops one of
Saussure's insights: that language consists of a system of relations among
arbitrary signs whose meanings are defined by the differences that set them
apart from one another. Deconstructionism is, then, a method for revealing the
radical contextuality of all systems of thought.
First, according to the poststructuralists, our perceptions only tell us
about what our perceptions are, not about the true conditions of the world.
Therefore, a photograph itself is a message about the event it records, which,
at its simplest, decoded, means: "I have decided that seeing this is worth
recording" (Berger, 1980). The only "objective" truth that photographs offer is
the assertion that somebody or something was somewhere and took a picture.
Everything else, everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs
Second, nothing is ever fully present in signs because to use signs at all
entails that the encoded meaning is always somehow dispersed, divided and never
quite at one with itself. We are born into a language system that preexists our
birth and that, from the moment we are born, supplies us and indoctrinates us
with all of its givens. We are able to think only in the terms of that language
system. Because language is the very air we breathe, we can never have a pure,
unblemished meaning or experience at all. Furthermore, audience help create the
meaning of the image by bringing to it his or her own cultural background,
experience, attitudes emotions or misunderstanding. Decoding is as active and
creative as encoding. The encoded, intended meanings of communications could be
bypassed or resisted. Photographers, authors, or other sign makers do not
control their meanings through their intentions. There is no way to arrive at
the "ultimate" meaning of anything (Grundberg, 1991). Meaning continues to
unfold beyond the arbitrary closure which makes it possible in the interaction
and negotiation between audience and the image. There is always something 'left
Third, what is commonly circulated in the cultural discourse and exchange
within a culture are representations. In a lucid commentary on Foucault's
poststructuralist writings, Dreyfus and Rabinow succinctly summarize the
theoretical basis of all poststructuralist methods: "The more one interprets the
more one finds not the fixed meaning of a text, or of the world, but only other
interpretations. These interpretations have been created and imposed by other
people, not by the nature of things. In this discovery of groundlessness the
inherent arbitrariness of interpretation is revealed" (1982, p. 107). Since very
little of our knowledge of people, events, social relations and powers arises
directly in our immediate experience, we rely on the constructed factual
statements in various documentary forms, including documentary photography, for
our ordinary knowledge, and as our truth resources. To an even greater extent,
we only experience reality through the pictures we make of it, and our
experience is governed by images. Next to these images, firsthand experience
begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. As such, any claims for
objectivity and truth are made in relation to representations of
representations, that is, frames of reference, not reality. Here, the
boundary between the subjective self and the objective world is effaced, so are
those between image and reality, the original and copies, and signifier and
signified. "Postmodern culture is thus characterized by a contradictory mix of
similarities and differences" (Harms and Dickens, 1996, p. 211).
Contrary to the truth notion of documentary photography, postmodernist art,
including postmodern photography, rejects all essentialist and foundationalist
claims to truth. Instead, postmodernists claim that thought and experience are
determined by codes, discourses, formats, models and so on; knowledge is not an
accurate representation of an external and objective order, instead, it is the
result of experiencing the world in terms of particular cultural code or model
(Ibid.). They accept the world as an endless hall of mirrors, as a place where
all we are is images (Grundberg, 1991). "There is no place in the postmodern
world for a belief in the authenticity of experience, in the sanctity of the
individual artist's vision, in genius or originality. What postmodernist art
finally tells us is that things have been used up, that we are at the end of the
line, that we are all prisoners of what we see" (Ibid., p. 384). A photographer
can only copy what is already a copy, and cannot hope to transparently reflect
anything real. As a result, cultural texts are reproduced and recombined in
different contexts. A classic rock song is transformed into an ad for an
automotive oil filter; a famous Elliott Erwitt picture made for the French
office of tourism in the 1950s was re-staged by Erwitt himself to serve as a
television commercial for Visa Card. Postmodern artist Sherri Levine's works
appropriated from Andreas Feininger and Elliot Porter's pictures of scene of
nature that are utterly familiar well explains such postmodern phenomena. To
Levine, the presence that such photographs have for us is the presence of d j
vu, nature as already having been seen, nature as representation. Levine's works
suggested that Barthes's description of the tense of photography as the
"having-been-there" be interpreted in a new way (Crimp, 1990).
Postmodernism is a loose construct that affiliates many theories from
multi-disciplines. In 1987, Chafee and Berger put forward seven criteria of
theory evaluation in their Handbook of Communication Science, which include
explanatory power, predictive power, parsimony, falsifiability, internal
consistency, heuristic provocativeness, and organizing power. According to these
criteria, postmodern theories have a great explanatory power because they
provide plausible explanations for the phenomena of representations in
humanities, social sciences, and even in some natural sciences like physics, but
they predict no future events. They can be, and have been proved false from a
variety of angles (see Harms and Dickens, 1996; Andrea, 1985; Sekula, 1984).
They are complex, internally inconsistent, and generate few new hypotheses.
Postmodern theories are well organized under the term postmodernism, but they
resist the extant knowledge.
Postmodernism shows several limitations in deconstructing documentary
photography, and other modernist arts. First, it subverts the intended meaning
and functioning of documentary images, but goes no further. The so-what question
is not answered. Second, it claims that creativity is no longer possible in
image-making, but all those postmodern approaches such as appropriation,
recontextualization, repetition, pastiche, anamorphism, or simulation betray a
faltered confidence in straightforward expression, thus contain a flicker of
modernism by indirectly demonstrating individuality and originality (two
hallmarks of modernism). The postmodern artists do not merely destroy but also
try to re-create experience. Third, postmodern critics claim we are so
contaminated by received images that we cannot even imagine new ones. It is true
that we may become tired of clich , even infuriated with them, but this is very
different from saying we are contaminated, as if we could never recover to see
clearly again. Fourth, to say that we can only experience reality through
pictures is to define reality as "that which has been pictured." This viewpoint
doesn't allow for the ways in which our individual experiences can contradict
the pictures we see. It doesn't acknowledge that we don't necessarily believe in
all representations equally--that we can doubt their validity or reject them as
false (Andre, 1985). Fifth, insufficient attention to the social context of
communication results in a curious paradox for the postmodern perspective. As
"On the one hand it is vehement in its antihumanist assertion that autonomous
subjectivity has given way to decentered selves. On the other, it posits an
autonomous, active audience" (Harms and Dickens, 1996, p. 221). finally, by
meticulously describing the glittering surface of mass media, images and
commodities, postmodernism has neglected their historical and political-economic
contexts in which they are inscribed. "Postmodern media studies are themselves a
symptom of the very postmodern culture they seek to analyze" (Ibid.). Their lack
of consideration of these larger structural contexts also greatly inhibits the
postmodernists' otherwise genuine efforts to address contemporary struggles for
greater freedom and equality. That is why we can hardly reinvent documentary
photography that takes into account the real truths about late capitalist
society that are contained in them If we reject the postmodern critics'
totalizing and debilitating assumptions. "For it is precisely those truths of
which traditional social documentary--which is what is usually thought of as
political photography--is ignorant" (Andre, 1985, p. 16). As Andre observed,
today, "postmodernism and documentary represent two extreme and opposed
practices: one, happily naive about its status as picture, as representation,
claims to transparently reflect reality; the other proclaims that its status as
picture is all that is can reflect" (Ibid.).
Summary and conclusion
Documentary photography has been studied from, though not limited to, the
above four perspectives. Despite the fact that each perspective studies nothing
more than image production, image as a text, and readers, each perspective has
raised some important questions about the decline and the survival of
By knitting a delicate web of meanings, positivist perspective aims at
clarifying the meaning of the terms such as documentary photography,
objectivity, and propaganda, that we so often use but don't take the trouble to
find out what they really mean to us. Positivism also looks at what causes the
images and what effect the images have on audience.
Social constructivism calls our attention to the organizational and other
influential forces behind the image production and interpretation, and reminds
us that photographic images provide no value-free witness. "Photographs are
constructions selectively made by photographers employing their medium to make
sense of their society" (Trachtenberg, 1989).
According to the postmodernist perspective, the aura of originality,
authenticity and uniqueness of documentary and other art work has been greatly
depreciated and diminished through the proliferation of copies in the age of
mechanical reproduction (Benjamin, 1969). The most important and essential
question it raises has been: Why still photograph? Western society is a 'camera
culture,' and documentary photographs play a big part in the process of forming
opinions and changing attitudes. This may in part explains why documentary is
still kicking today in spite of its ritualistic nature.
But is it going anywhere? How can it be reinvented, as Allan Sekula
expected? This is where the Marxist perspective comes in. Sekula was definitely
right, "[s]ocially conscious American artists have much to learn from both the
successes and the mistakes, compromises, and collaborations of their Progressive
Era and New Deal predecessors" (1984, p. 236). We need a political critique of
the documentary genre. And we must understand that each photograph is a result
of the interrelationships between the institutions, practices, conventions, and
socio-political circumstances under which it was created and distributed.
Socially constructed truth both reveals and suppresses facts. It is politically
compromised and ideologically determined.
Traditional documentary photographers aimed to showing what was wrong with
the world and to persuade their fellows to take action to make it right. But by
the 1950s, a new generation of documentary photographers like Robert Frank began
to take a different stance: they looked at the fabric of the affluent society
and although they found it full of holes they concluded that it was not up to
them to mend it. They felt bound by no mission whatever except to see life
clearly. Robert Frank seemed to have violated the canons of the documentary
tradition. His gritty images of the American scene --with their emphasis on the
grim, often odd, and always joyless routine of daily life -- presented no
victims, identified no social problems, and called for no social reform. He
showed not one half of Americans to the other half but show Americans as a whole
for themselves to reflect. Frank's documentary style brought great influence on
the contemporary and later documentary practitioners such as Lee Friedlander and
a group of documentary photographers on the West coast including Allan Sekula,
Martha Rosler and Fred Lonidier. In his documentary reinvention manifesto
'Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary,' Sekula (1984) argued "for an
art that documents monopoly capitalism's inability to deliver the conditions of
a fully human life, for an art that recalls Benjamin's remark in the Theses on
the Philosophy of History that 'there is no document of civilization that is not
at the same time a document of barbarism.'" (p. 255). Instead of mainly showing
his documentary photographs to gallery and museum audience, Marxist photographer
Lonidier has been often exhibiting his union work to the photographed union
members in union buildings as a material of self-education, aiming at a
political understanding of the decadence of the capitalist system. Nevertheless,
compared to the concurrent practice of postmodern photography represented by
Cindy Sherman and Sherri Levine, Lonidier's work has never got as popular and
well accepted by the mainstream American photography.
Reinventing documentary is a hard, if not an impossible, task. First,
historically, documentary has been born out of depression, and gained
popularity, audience, and attention when the economic and political realms were
falling apart. The logical extension of this concept might be that misery and
struggle make good pictures. Nevertheless, this has been no longer the case in
the affluent American society. Documentary photography today has almost totally
lost its economic ground on which it grew and developed. To some extent,
documentary is parasitic to hard time.
Second, in spite of the repeated academic endeavor of absolving the term
propaganda from its the negative connotations, the term has been so contaminated
that it has been thoroughly devalued in the American culture. For audience, as
well as documentary photographers, to be aware of the complexity of objectivity
that is involved in documentary photography and to recognize the potential
positivity of propaganda is one of the biggest challenges that face the
reinvention of social documentary.
Third, no longer trusted for its presumed objectivity and transparency, no
longer the reliable guide to visual "truth," documentary photography in the
postmodern era has had its authority devastated by technologies like digital
imaging, which allows for seamless doctoring to a photograph and makes the
doctored photograph look original, the mass media, which "corrupt messages,
cultivate sensationalism, hold ideas to contempt, practice hidden censorship,
inundate us with trivial news, and cause genuine information to vanish" (Octavio
Paz, quoted in Johnson, 1997), and mass advertising, whose photographic strategy
is to disguise the directorial mode as a form of documentary (Jussim, 1989;
Crimp, 1990). Documentary today has lost its legitimacy as a truth conveyor.
Fourth, sympathetic to the postmodernist doxa of recycling existing images,
which delegitimizes the pleasures we get from photographs because they are
taken, Sekula's Aerospace Folktales (1973) and This Ain't China: a photonovel
(1974), Rosler's The Bowery in two inadequate systems (1975), Lonidier's The
health and safety game (1976), and many other contemporary radical documentary
photographers' work have been deprived of visual pleasure in image reading
because of their emphasis on the sole transmission of political information.
Such documentaries are not so easy to gain visual impact among the public as
Lange's Migrant Mother and Rothstein's Skull did.
Finally, gone are the days when radical Marxist points of view about
revolution could win even a tiny market in the American culture because of the
comprehensive decline of the practice of communism in ex-Soviet Union, East
European countries, and, to a great extent, in China since 1989. Documentary has
lost its political momentum in today's American art scene.
Of all the different uses to which photography has been put, none has been
so influential as the strong documentary tradition that has existed from the
earliest days, with photographers recording the pattern of life and death in
distant lands and among different societies. The documentary photographer has
brought the world to the feet of the armchair traveler and the stay-at-home
anthropologist. As Andre said: "Photography satisfies our need to know about the
world that lies outside our own narrow experiences --a curiosity that exists no
matter how jaded we think we are, no matter how many photographs we've seen"
(1985, p. 15). Nevertheless, today's documentary serves more as a medium that
feeds the nostalgia of truth telling than as a truth carrier. Instead of
recording history, it is most likely that documentary will soon become history
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 As a matter of fact, to be more precise, they showed mainly the rural
Americans to urban Americans.
 Documentary photography represented by photographers like Jacob Riis, Lewis
Hine, FSA, Photo League, Eugene Smith is often called traditional documentary
photography. This genre came to a decline around the late 1940s, though it is
still kicking today.
 In photography, the term manipulation is often associated with altering
negatives or prints in the darkroom. It is, however, used in this paper to refer
to any acts of staging, posing in the production process and re-touching or
other controls like inappropriate cropping in the post-production process.
Manipulation is a way of changing the status of things. In the process of
manipulation, human subject's expression, gesture, or position, or still life's
prior spatial status are intentionally intervened at the time of being
photographed, negatives or photographs are doctored in the darkroom, some
important information pertaining to an event is intentionally excluded, or some
elements are intentionally juxtaposed so as to enhance a concept, to represent a
situation or to serve specific purposes.
 For Evans's example, see the analysis in Curtis, 1989, p. 23-24.
 Rothstein's Skull, perhaps, has brought up most accusations of making
propaganda among all the FSA photographs. For instance, an article in Detroit
Free Press published on September 4, 1936 was titled 'Another Fake Traced to
Doctor Tugwell's Propagandists.' Another article on Waterloo (Iowa) Courier
published on September 25, 1936 was titled 'The Drought Wasn't As Bad As It Was
 Becker argued: "The desire to make 'art' may, then, lead photographers to
suppress details that interfere with their artistic conception, a conception
that might be perfectly valid in its own right, but that unsuits the photographs
for use as evidence for certain kinds of conclusions. Many social scientists
have just this fear about photographs. It is a justified fear, but one relevant
not only to photographs or to those photographs made with some artistic
intention" (1978, p. 12).
 Beaumont Newhall has observed that a photographer engaged in the
documentary strategy "seeks to do more than convey information .... His aim is
to persuade and convince" (quoted in Jussim, 1989, p. 153).
 In an interview for the Archives of American Art, Rothstein acknowledged
that Ben Shahn and Walker Evans both "contributed a great deal to my own
development as a photographer in those days... They made me very much aware of
the elements that go into photography--those that go beyond just the content of
the picture--the elements of style, of individual approach, of being able to see
clearly, and being able to visualize ideas" (Rothstein, 1979, p. 7).
 Rexford Tugwell, Director of the FSA, Stryker's ex-professor at Columbia
University, once emphasized, "that the photographs may be considered art is
complimentary, but that is incidental to their purpose" (Doherty, 1976, p. 13).
 Becker argued that the simple question "Is it true?" is unanswerable and
meaningless. "Every photograph, because it begins with the light rays something
emits hitting film, must in some obvious sense be true; and because it could
always have been made differently than it was, it cannot be the whole truth and
in that obvious sense is false." He suggested that, to talk about the question
more sensibly, we have to begin with asking, "Is this photograph telling the
truth about what?" The point is to ask ourselves what question or questions the
photograph might be answering. "We needn't restrict ourselves to questions the
photographs suggest. We can also use them to answer questions the photographer
did not have in mind and that are obviously suggested by the picture." See
Becker, 1978, p. 10.
 For instance, Chinese government has regarded the June 4 event of 1989 as
"a counter-revolutionary riot," students regard it as "a democratic movement"
and the Western media call it "June 4 massacre."
 Such repetition and reworking is equivalent to what Edward Said has
referred to as the citationary nature of Orientalism (Said, 1980).