The inherent fascination of the photograph comes from its duality as truthteller and storyteller. Where truthtelling penetrates and describes reality, storytelling fills the timeless need to create fables. The center of this duality is most apparent in the annals of documentary photography as it evolved in America from the 1930s to the 1980s.
"A Good, Honest Photograph": Steichen, Stryker, and the Standard Oil of New Jersey Project
The 1930s changed the face of American documentary photography as government-sponsored projects took the lead in documenting the bitterness and hope of the depression years: the Farm Security Administration, Resettlement Administration, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Soil Conservation Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration.
The Photo League, a volunteer organization of amateur and professional photographers located in New York City from 1936 to 1951, numbered among its members, guest speakers, and teachers the most illustrious photographers in America in the 1930s and 1940s.
“I’m so fuckin lucky ... my work, I love it. I’ve had my share of success ... my kids, they’re wonderful, the greatest. I can’t figure it out, ya know ... like, Why Me? Shit, I spend my time waiting for the other shoe to drop.” It did. In 1984 on your way to Tijuana.
In recent years, many critics and photographers have begun to challenge the discourse of documentary photography. Rather than simply rejecting the subject matter of the Photo League or the style of photographers such as Garry Winogrand, these younger photographers question the very language of representation these images employ.
Reviews of: Rich and Poor by Jim Goldberg, Random House, New York, 1985, $15.95 paperback. American Pictures: A Personal Journey through the American Underclass by Jacob Holdt, American Pictures Foundation, New York, 1985. (Direct order from American Pictures, P.O. Box 2123, N.Y., N.Y. 10009, $18 hardcover, $15 paperback.)
"No ideas but in things," sang William Carlos Williams in his lyrical (and at times brutally candid) examinations of America known as the poem Paterson. In those often-repeated words, he scorned the abstract mind as a cultural icon, theory as truth's ruling filter.
JUDITH BARRY is an artist and writer living in New York. HELEN GARY BISHOP is a New Yorkbased writer and documentary filmmaker. She met Garry Winogrand in 1975 when she was writing the text for his book Women Are Beautiful. BARBARA BLOOM is an artist living in New York.
Cover photograph by Judith Barry, courtesy of artist; pp. 3, 6—13 courtesy of the Photographic Archives at the University of Louisville, Kentucky; p. 4 courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA Collection; p. 15 photograph by Sy Kattelson, courtesy of the artist;
“A Good Honest Photograph”; Steichen, Stryker and the Standard Oil of New Jersey Project 'See my “ 'The Record Itself’: Farm Security Administration Photography and the Transformation of Rural Life,” Pete Daniel, Merry A. Foresta, Maren Strange, and Sally Stein, Official Images: New Deal Photography (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), p. 4. Christopher Phillips’s ''Steichen’s Road to Victory,” Exposure 18:2 (1981), p. 41, notes that "the huge photomurals which were constructed from enlarged FSA photographs and raised in Grand Central Station in December, 1941” probably mark “the first instance after Pearl Harbor in which documentary photographs were adapted to purposes of propaganda.