3.5 / Review

More American Photographs

By Christine Kesler November 15, 2011

One of the most iconic images of the Great Depression is a photograph known as Migrant Mother (1936). Dorothea Lange’s portrait, which is currently on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts as part of the group show More American Photographs, shows a woman hemmed in by her three small children, her hand at her face in a gesture that is at once tender, absent-minded, and deeply troubled. The original caption given to the Library of Congress to accompany the image is Destitute Peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children, February 1936. The project from which this image arose was an effort of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which assigned photographers to “document continuity and change in many aspects of life in America” from 1935 to 1944.1 A style of documentary photography emerged within this group of images that has proven an indelible influence on subsequent generations. Photographers working in the twentieth century, including Robert Frank and, later, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and William Eggleston, would embody “a version of art photography derived from the vocabulary of photojournalism rather than that of painting.”2

As our country struggles with the most depressed economy since the Great Depression, the Wattis has created a kind of remake of the FSA’s project, and to haunting effect. The original FSA photographs presented at the Wattis are in elegant groupings: inkjet prints from the archives of the Library of Congress arranged at the center of the two rooms on the Wattis’ lower level. Walker Evans’ images from a long-passed day, such as General Store Interior, Moundville, Alabama (1936), deliver both the poeticism of abstract painting and the incredible detail of a hard-won photograph taken on large-format film with a camera that is as much a relic as the wood floors it depicts. Hung on the perimeter walls of each exhibition room—and seemingly gazing inward at their forbearers—are the images that comprise director Jens  Hoffmann’s re-creation of the FSA project. The journey of photographic art from analog to the current digital formats is evident in this juxtaposition of original works with the new commissions.

In the past year, a dozen commissioned photographers embarked on their own photographic journey, creating an essay in images and capturing the plight and the humanity of our country during this Great Recession. This group of image makers reexamines the separation of photography and photojournalism, armed with a script identical to the one provided by Roy Stryker to his initial cast of artists in the 1930s, wherein Stryker described the kinds of images he wanted to see. Hoffmann’s commission letter implores the artists in More American Photography to create with compassion; he confesses trust in their abilities, and his narrative adds poignancy and intimacy to one of the most quietly affecting shows the Wattis has assembled to date.

Stryker meant for the original FSA photographers to document the cash loans made to farmers by the Resettlement Administration (RA)—loans that were essentially meant to provide the means for 650,000 farmers to relocate to more fertile land, restart their lives, and invigorate the economy by creating new communities.

John Vachon. National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa, 1940; inkjet print; 10 x 8 in. Courtesy the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Katy Grannan. Untitled, Bakersfield, California, 2011; archival pigment print; 29 x 39 in. Courtesy the Artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

But the RA was successful in moving only several thousand people and building a small handful of greenbelt cities that “planners admired as models for a cooperative future that never arrived.”3 Garbage foragers in John Vachon’s 1940 photograph Foraging for food in the city dump, Dubuque, Iowa call to mind the scavengers that currently populate countless San Francisco streets. The compelling vignettes of Martha Rosler’s Greenpoint, Brooklyn explorations are tableaux of the transformation she has witnessed in her own community. She captures the distinctions of her neighborhood with a great deal of warmth and humor through images and text, such as in EAT, Abdul, 3Decker (2011). As both sets of photographs attest, the camera can be an equalizing force in a community, rendering flatly the lives of others whether rich or poor.

Though on a smaller scale than originally intended, the efforts of the RA to relocate migrant farmers and create so-called lands of opportunity nevertheless invoked waves of xenophobia in the citizens affected by incoming migrants, not unlike the immigration battles being waged in many states today. Many of the FSA images document the segregation of the 1930s and ’40s, often utilizing signage to make a point. Populations meant to be unseen—Americans being herded and shuffled according to their designation of “colored” or “Negro”—walk alongside signs touting the “world’s highest standard of living” in Arthur Rothstein’s Sign, Birmingham, Alabama (1937). In the new set of photographs, the sign of our times always seems to be For Sale in one form or another. Catherine Opie’s shopkeepers, such as in Rita, (Pupuseria) (2011), gaze starkly out from large-scale color prints, blithely waiting for their next stimulus. Katy Grannan’s California-based portraits depict a similar quiet desperation, giving no indication of the figures’ occupations.

As Congress essentially put an end to the efforts of the RA by combining the agency with the FSA, the tenor of pseudo-patriotic backlash in the face of this overly socialistic endeavor has an all too familiar ring to it. What is haunting about the images on view at the Wattis—and the premise of the curatorial decision to group the two projects—is the resounding echo of economic instability, political posturing, and stagnation. Even in its title, More American Photographs gives an eerie feeling of history repeating itself: a déjà-vu of resignation and defeat. As a modern day Stryker, Hoffmann implores his artists to ask, “What does the recession mean to Americans?” Today, the photographers seem to answer with what it means not only to Americans, but also to the practice of photography in a world that feels as if it could move forward, if only we weren’t still so stuck.


More American Photographs is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, in San Francisco, through December 17, 2011.



1. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Prints and Photographs Reading Room. “Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination: Documentation by Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographers.” http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/085_disc.html

2. Russell Ferguson, Open City: Possibilities of the Street (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 2001), 10.

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resettlement_Administration

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