Documenting the Movements for Social Justice
by David Bacon
Review - Reframing America, - Ansel Adams Center, San Francisco
In the wake of the decline of the large glossy magazines which brought documentary photography into millions of households, documentary photographers have had a much more difficult time surviving, a problem compounded by a more conservative trend in the mainstream media. At the same time, discussion of the mission of documentary photography and its content has often taken a back seat to debate over its form and technique.
The social crisis of our time, however, calls for a redefinition of what photography can and should document. Newspaper photojournalism has created a new understanding of the immediacy and impact of documentary images, but it's come at a price. Photographers are expected to be "objective" observers of events, not active participants in them. What is the relationship between the documentation of social reality, and movements for social change? As documentary photographers of our era struggle to answer that question, it helps to take a look at how the photographers of a previous generation dealt with the same dilemma.
Reframing America, part of the Points of Entry three-part series on immigration and immigrant photographers (Ansel Adams Center, November 15 - January 7) makes an important contribution to this dialogue on documentary photography, its social function, and the relation between form and content. In particular, it brings us the work of some of the lesser-known photographers of the 1930s and 40s. The work of these photographers was not less evocative or technically challenging than others who went on to become household names. But the social content of their work made it less attractive to the commercial media, and its increasingly conservative drift in the decades that followed. This exhibit does photography a service in giving the work new life, at a time when documentary photography can use its inspiration, and the questioning of its assumptions.
All seven photographers in this exhibit were immigrants who arrived in the U.S. from Europe in the 1920s and 30s. Five of the seven, Alexander Alland, John Guttman, Hansel Mieth, Otto Hegel and Marian Palfi, were artists who saw themselves as partisans of the poor, of workers, of African American people and immigrants, and of their movements to win social justice. These photographers were not neutral observers, nor were they detached from the lives and struggles they sought to document.
It is in the nature of immigration that people who come to America, filled with ideals of justice and equality, compare them to the reality they find. This comparison of high expectation with harsh reality is what gives immigrant politics its radicalism. These photographers sought to resolve this tension by identification with ordinary people. In the words of Alexander Alland, "I was one of the millions. I was an American..."
But Alland and the others didn't see America as a homogenous whole - they saw in U.S. society the conflict of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, white and Black. Alland, who arrived from Russia in 1923, depicts the urban environment, counterposing images of unemployed and hungry people with the massive edifices of power ("Faceless Windows," or the stock exchange at "Broad and Wall," perhaps his most famous picture.)
The didactic nature of their photography, and their fearlessness in conveying a concrete message, made these five artists unhesitant in using the written words of their surroundings, whether posters in windows, picketsigns, newspapers, or even lettering on cars, to make a point. Alland shows University of Chicago students in the 1940s making signs for a demonstration against discrimination at the medical school. He consciously places an African-American student next to a white student in the center of the image. The scene could have been one from the recent demonstrations against ending affirmative action at the University of California campuses. The photographers, especially the students, of today who are documenting these more recent events are working in the tradition of this photograph, and the work of Marian Palfi as well.
Alland uses the written word again in an untitled photograph in which a man stands at a window of a city newsstand, flanked by two rows of newspapers. The papers are the real subject. You can count at least a dozen languages on their mastheads, and they include almost every leftist daily of the period. Alland is pointing not only to the diversity of immigration - the languages and cultures people bring with them - but to the fact that immigrants bring new ideas and new politics as well.
John Gutmann, who arrived in the U.S. after living in the cultural ferment of Weimar Germany, is even more didactic. One image is of "Anti-fascist Posters" in an urban store window - one advertising an event to collect support for the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, and another for a meeting to expose Nazi agents. The posters aren't beautiful - it's the message which is important here. Likewise his anti-military image of a row of boys lined up against the wall of Mission High School with their rifles, with the word 'school' stretching out before them, painted in the street.
His photographs break rules. In "Indian High School Band, Arizona," half the vertical frame is filled with the bell of a tuba, with beautiful soft reflections. The face of a young, native American band member below it creates an ominous, dark atmosphere with dense, impenetrable shadows, and a crossed bandage on his cheek. Another, "In the Background, the Pimp - New Orleans," is an equally ominous image in which two faces fill the frame completely, each out of focus - a man with a top hat behind a woman wearing a white mask.
Gutmann and others were influenced by the Weimar artists who sought to break the staid rules of artistic composition, sharpness, and angle to cause the viewer to question assumptions, and to find a new viewpoint. Like the great playwright Bertoldt Brecht, they were on the one hand disciples of realism, committed to class partisanship and showing reality from the bottom up, but also of a stylized technique which would not allow the viewer to relax in comfort. Their use of the camera as the human eye, infinitely changeable in point of view, had a point to make, a critique.
Gutmann's photograph, "The News Photographer - San Francisco City Hall," takes the viewer up into the balcony, high above a formal scene in the huge rotunda. Below, a news photographer is taking a set shot of dignitaries at a table, no doubt for the pages of the morning paper. But Gutmann's lens takes in everything, the whole context, to show you what won't be in that news photograph of the satisfied city fathers and their guests. Behind the photographer and to his side are rows of children in uniform, flanked by huge flags, stretching up into the balcony - the Nazi swastika and the stars and stripes together. Gutmann shows the photographer screening out the most damning elements, the ones which teach the nature of the danger.
Alland uses the same wide angle, shooting from above, with a photograph of hungry gypsy children. The viewer hovers above them, their faces and bodies at the edge of the frame. In the middle, open cans of beans sit on newspapers spread on the floor, while a young boy stuffs them into his mouth. The wide context is everything.
While most of the photographers shown here identified themselves with the movements for social justice of their day (and Alland was later blacklisted for it), Otto Hegel and Hansel Meith were the most committed to using photography as an instrument of change itself. A triptych of photographs about unemployment epitomizes their sense of the relationship photography should have with social protest. The first, "Unemployed father with son, North Platte, Nebraska," is a beautiful and evocative image of a poor man holding his sleeping son in his arms. The camera caresses their faces with the same protectiveness the subject obviously feels. This sympathy emanates as well from other depression-era photographs of unemployed parents and children. But there is a difference here. In his hand, at the bottom of the frame, the man hold a membership card in the Workers Alliance of America, a radical organization of the unemployed of the period.
This image is followed by "Unemployed Meeting, North Platte," which shows the same man, this time at the edge of the frame, speaking to a group of older women. Pamphlets and papers on the table make it clear this is a meeting of people to do something about their situation. Hansel Mieth, the photographer in both cases, views the unemployed as actors, as strong people capable of changing their destiny, not just as victims.
The third photograph is one by Mieth's husband, Otto Hegel. "Hiring Hall" shows San Francisco longshoremen in their hiring hall, getting a day's work in a situation in which they relax and talk to each other with ease and dignity. Behind them is the job board, and in a corner of the frame above, the speaker which will announce who will be dispatched to unload the next ship. You can even see the hero of San Francisco's labor movement, Harry Bridges, small in the foreground, talking to a man reading a newspaper. Hegel shows the solution he saw to unemployment and the competition for work, that is, unions which put control over jobs into the hands of workers themselves.
Mieth and Hegel came from Germany in the 1930s, already committed to the idea of placing photography at the service of the movement to change society. They often worked in the fields and other ordinary jobs to support themselves, and knew the world they were trying to document. When they show you the face of the weighmaster in "The Weighmaster is Waiting," with his cold face and eyes hidden in shadow, beside the scale which weighs the crop a worker has picked in the field and will be paid for, you can feel the power of life and death he holds. They understood the point of view of the worker, because they were workers.
Mieth was able to get a job for a while at Life Magazine, before the political climate turned cold in the 1950s. Hegel didn't want to compromise his commitment to political movements. Some of the photographs he took for the Longshoremen's Union, the most progressive of its day, can still be seen in the fourth floor lobby of the union's headquarters on Franklin Street in San Francisco. The union published a revelatory collection of his images of work on the docks before it was automated, now out-of-print, called Men and Machines.
Much of the effort people make to change society comes through discussion and the exchange of ideas at meetings - the most fundamental part of democracy, and of the organizing process. Yet people talking in meetings are difficult to document in a way which conveys their excitement, and the intensity of their emotion and thought. Mieth and Hegel collaborated on "Night Meeting at the Crossroads," which shows a speaker high on the bed of a truck at one edge of the frame, with farmers or farmworkers grouped around a hidden lantern, their faces half lit, and half in deep shadow. Again the feeling is ominous. They are perhaps planning a strike, meeting out in the fields in a place where they won't be observed. You can sense both the atmosphere of fear in the participants, but also their determination to act. The photo is reminiscent of Willy Ronis' photograph of a strike meeting among French workers in the 1930s.
Marion Palfi, also came from Germany, after being forced twice to flee the advancing Nazis. Settling in New York, she became a friend and documentor of the cultural movement among leftwing African-American literary and artistic figures of Harlem in the 1940s. This was part of the radical political movement of its day, when those who advocated racial equality and civil rights were viewed as socialists, communists and radicals.
Her photos, too, had a didactic quality, as she tried to use them to teach viewers that ordinary friendship and equality was possible between races. Her unpublished series, "Democracy at Work," includes an image of the same name, where African-American and white children sit playing cards. A series of portraits of people in doorways, car windows and leaning against walls shows their shared humanity, and the similarity of their circumstances. Both white and Black are poor. These images could break the stereotypes which pervade the media today of "the Black underclass," or "the welfare mother."
Two of her photographs also document what was an immediate danger of her period, the Ku Klux Klan. In one, "The Columbians in Atlanta - the Juvenile Delinquents of the Ku Klux Klan," a young man displays a racist tattoo on his arm. But he otherwise looks quite middle-class and respectable. The photographer doesn't approach the Klan as a voyeur, documenting the politically exotic and strange. Much current documentary photography depicts racism only at the margins of society, not at its center. Palfi's photograph shows you that racism is respectable, in ordinary society, covered by a thin veneer of clothing.
The second image, "Los Angeles - Anti Klan Meeting where the Klan did Strike," shows something even less seen in current documentary work on racism - the effort of people to stop it. In this photograph, a man speaks from a truckbed to a crowd in front of a typical southern California bungalow. Both the man and the crowd are white. Again unafraid of using the written word, Palfi highlights the signs in evidence - 'Negro and White - Unity will Stop the KKK,' because their message is fundamental to the political integrity of her image. Resistance by white people to racist attacks on African-Americans is possible and necessary, she says.
The exhibit ends with the work of Lisette Model, an Austrian immigrant, and Robert Frank, a Swiss. Model is less overtly political, shooting figures on the streets of New York. She views them from below, using some of the same stylistic devices used by the other photographers in the exhibit. Her heavy figures fill the frames, sometimes bent and twisted. She concentrates on the faces, on the emotion passing over them. The expressions fascinate, but the people are generally abstracted from the social elements of their lives.
Robert Frank is by far the best known of all the photographers included, and provides an interesting contrast to end the series. He came to the U.S. later than the rest, and was really part of the generation which followed. By the time he began work, the radical movements, which evoked the passion and loyalty of the first five photographers, were under siege. McCarthyism had not only attacked communists, unions, and civil rights advocates. It had mounted a direct assault on the arts, not dissimilar in many ways from the current barrage of our time. The Hollywood Ten, a group of leftwing screenwriters, were in prison as Frank took camera in hand.
The mass media boosted the cold war and "The American Century." It looked with suspicion at those who continued to point to social and economic injustice and inequality. For Alland, Gutmann, Mieth, Hegel and Palfi, making a living as a photographer was increasingly problematic. Some were blacklisted. The connection between documentary photography and movements for social change was severed, and was only rejoined to some degree by the movements against racism and the Vietnam War of a decade later.
Frank's images are very evocative. "US 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas," has great emotional power in its image of a woman and her son sleeping on the seat of a car. The car is cut off by the frame, and a luminous, strangely-lit headlight, shines out at the viewer as the desert extends into the distant background.
His images leave you with questions. Who is she? Why is the car stopped by the side of the road? Why is its light on in the daytime?
In "Convention Hall, Chicago," the viewer sees the deal-making, the cigar in the hand. The faces are all white. There's no suffering here, the photographer points out. "En Route from Washington to New York, Club Car," gives us another well-fed face in a fancy railroad car, behind the broad backs of two men in sportcoats. They crack the 50s conformist image of what America is supposed to be - it's not happy, it's not a singing soap commercial, it's not a situation comedy on television.
But something's missing - the sense that it can be changed, and the vision of what that change might be. Documentary photography is no longer didactic. It is detached, and the photographer looks at the contradictions, and sometimes the hypocrisy, of American life from a distance. It is the cool art of the beatnik era - critical of the gap between ideals and reality, but not committed to any movement to change it.
This change in the stance of the documentary photographer was a fundamental shift which reverberates in our day. Documentary photographers still take their place on the spectrum of attitude represented in this exhibit.
Obviously, not all documentary photography has to be didactic in pointing to a possibility of social change. There's no need to relive the 1930s, even if it were possible. But there is a need for discourse among documentary photographers about the content of work, and its relationship to the social movements of our time. Racism is still alive and well. Economic inequality is greater now than it has been for half a century. People are fighting for their survival. And it's happening here, not just in safely-distant countries.
The social movements of our day are more complex. It's often harder to find the sense of political certainty which filled the vision, and inspired the dedication of these artists who came before. Perhaps it takes the imagination and vision of an outsider, an immigrant, to look through the window and point out the obvious. That seems to be part of what happened in the 1930s and 40s, in the period this exhibit brings us.
Who are the photographers of our era who ask the same questions, and who search for connection? How have they redefined these issues, and what answers have they found?
Like the best exhibits, Reframing America is a discourse on these themes, leaving us with more questions as we go out the door than we had when we came in.
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