The photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) was an ultra-light and lyrical traveler, who didn't leave a footprint in the country he moved through, though the impact of his work--the result of the travel--fastened a famously indelible image on American history--indelible, and fast, being recognized for his work with a commanding exhibition at the new Museum of Modern Art in 1938.
Evans possessed a crystaline lens which yielded both spectacular detail and subtle quietnesses. He could turn a tenement farmer's rough-hewn wooden kitchen drawer filled with roustabout cutlery into a photographic masterpiece, and then photograph the face of that farmer or that farmer's family and have it stand as an absolute testimonal to the expereince of the Great Depression in the American life. Evans made some of the core memories of that visual experience. He (along with some of the greatest photographers America has produced) worked for the government for a time during the Depression, answering to Roy Stryker at the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, with the mission of taking photographs of America--which he did, establishing himself as one of the early and preeminent masters of documentary photography.
I was thinking of him earlier today, adn thought that I'm make a selection Walker's photographs from the magnificent collection of Farm Security Administration images at the Library of Congress. (Also, see the Museum of Modern Art for a nice appraisal, here).
Dorothea Lange, a standard portrait photographer-turned-superb-documentarian, had a six-year-run of photographic success and inspiration and energy as few people have ever experienced in the history of photography From her 1936 Migrant Mother, which is perhaps the great photograph of the American Great Depression (which I wrote about in The Best Dollar the U.S. Government Ever Spent) to the wicked sharpness of her documenting the terrible business of relocating Japanese American citizens to concentration camps in 1942. Lange traveled the country recording the state of Americans in what may have been one of the great journeys of th 1930's.
The period in which this was all happening was one of the most chaotic in modern history--at least in the West. The Depression was full-bore-on, of course; as Germany strained its way into confrontation with the rest of the world, taking its calculated and inexorable steps towards world hemispheric chaos. The other images of these six years are almost a dada-kaleidoscopic assembly of the believable and the not believable: Sudetendland, Kristallnacht, Neville Chamerbalin, Austria, Poland, Nanking, Canton, War of the Worlds, Munich Agreement, WWII in Europe, Spanish Revolution, lynching, Jewish explusion, concentration camps, Pearl Harbor. In the United States, there was a certain right-wing element that ran deep into the national consciousness, the worst embodied in Father Coughlin's filthy radio diatribes on keeping America out of war wrapped in Jew-hating monologues, the ridiculous semi-levitating philosopher-fake and home-town-boy-gone-bad Charles Pelley and his Silver Shirts being part of his support; Henry Ford and his assault on Judaism and insistence on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Charles Lindbergh and America First, and so on., and for a divisive time until the crystalizing of Pearl Harbor.
The literature of this time, of this 1936-1942 period, expressing the soul of the country seems pretty full, with these few works standing as good examples of the work of the period: John Steinbeck's beginning in "the Harvest Gypsies"/Their Blood is Strong, The Grapes of Wrath, Faulkner's Absolom! Absolom! (1936), Pare Lorentz The Plow that Broke the Plains, Carey McWIlliams Factories in the Field (1939), Taylor/Lange's An American Exodus (1939), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), the New Masses, Abel Meeropol’s anti-lynching poem "Strange Fruit", and so on, deeply on.
But perhaps in all of it, perhaps nothing else quite expresses the emotion of the period than Lange's Migrant Mother. It seems to have everything, in one photograph. In the vast result of Lange's work during this period it is interesting to have a look at her in Imperial Valley, California, in 1937--it seems less-often mentioned, though the work is very strong. So I decided to post a few of the images with a link to the rest of the collection (below).
"I was forced to switch from Nipomo to the Imperial Valley because of the conditions there. They have always been notoriously bad as you know and what goes on in the Imperial is beyond belief. The Imperial Valley has a social structure all its own and partly because of its isolation in the state those in control get away with it. But this year's freeze practically wiped out the crop and what it didn't kill is delayed--in the meanwhile, because of the warm, no rain climate and possibilities for work the region is swamped with homeless moving families. The relief association offices are open day and night 24 hours. The people continue to pour in and there is no way to stop them and no work when they get there."
Other samples below but a fuller listing of images is available here.
Imperial Valley, California, February and March 1937 Resettlement Administration
1. Lange was still very new to the FSA project when she made this photograph in the spring of 1936. On the tail end of a month-long road trip she was nearing the end of her day when she spotted a hand-lettered sign "Pea-Pickers Camp" by the side of the road. Lange briefly considered stopping but went ahead, questioning her judgment continuously for the next 20 miles, when she finally turned around to find the turn-off for the camp. She drove down the dirt road and found a ramshackle assembly of tents, one of which contained "an exhausted mother sitting forlornly with her children". Lange spent only 10 minutes with the woman, making five exposures. She learned that "the crops had frozen, and the woman and children were living on vegetables scavenged from the fields, and the few birds that the children managed to catch. The mother could not leave; she had sold the tires from her car".
The images were made using a Graflex camera. The original negatives are 4x5" film.
And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em, and so on ad infinitum.
--Jonathan Swift, 1733
There are a lot of triangles in this fabulous photo of the construction of the Empire State Building in 1931--a lot. At least fifty--more if you use your imagination or get your pinhole specs out. It is simply an excellent photo in which I'm seeing things of a reducible nature--not in the sense of a Sierpinski triangle/sieve/gasket, obviously--but just a simple exercise along those lines (ha!), experiencing the image by recognizing different sorts of boundaries within it.
[Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections, here.]
Looking at these pictures, the first thought about what silent bells sound like is pathetic nothingness, and that apart from any secular importance or significance. But when the Russians pulled out of Poland they took the bells of the churches with them, keeping them from the advancing German army, keeping them so that the Germans didn't melt them down to use in munitions. The bells disappeared too from many Russian cities, pulled back deeper inside Mother Russia, far from the advancing army.
[Source, above and next three images, from the Illustrated London News, 4 October 1915.]
Etienne Leopold Trouvelot (1823-1895) was an ex-pat Frenchmen who settled in Medford ("Don't Pronounce the First D") Massachusetts, and who became a very highly accomplished and deeply skilled astronomical observer and astro-illustrator. (I've included a suite of fifteen of his most accomplished works below, all found in greater detail via their links from their source at the NY Public Library Digital Collections.)
Trouvelot covered the spectrum in his art and photography--in addition to making photographs of the deeply settled but still open-to-mystery astronomical objects, he also was the photographer of extremely intransient things. Among the later are some fantastic images that he made of high-voltage electrical discharges (images of which I found initially at the blog Translinguisitic Order).
The image above is an example of that work, despite it looking like something rather deep-space-y, it is decidedly terrestrial--it is an image that he made of a discharge from either a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, and was produced ca, 1888/9. It was a signature accomplishment, like photographing lightning or making an atlas of clouds, a watermark of sorts in a decade of photographic highpoint contributions in the sciences. (Some of these accomplishments were found in the work of Etienne Marey, who was able to isolate action in a continuous series of photographic still images, which for its time revealed shocking results. Not only did the Marey work display the magnificence of motion, it also provided just about the first opportunity in the history of people to show the action in reverse.)
Trouvelot's drawing of a meteor shower, which I know has a very certain biological feel to it:
Caption from NYPL: "Image ID: trouvelot_012. The November meteors. As observed between midnight and 5 o'clock A.M. on the night of November 13-14 1868. (1881-1882)
And this spectacular image of the "Great Nebula in Orion" as it used to be called in some textbooks, now better known as Messier 42 or M42 or NCG 1976, which was and probably still may be one of the closest scrutinized things in the sky. It was recognized first perhaps by Niclas Claude F de Peirsec in 1610, with the first published account following in 1618 by Cysatus of Lucerne, though it didn't get any real traction until it fell into the hands of Christian Huygens (1656) who also published the first image of the big bright spot in the middle of the sword of Orion in 1659. (This is a little off-target but I like the historical end of the story.)
And just for the sake of it, the Messier drawing:
And Andrew Commons' photograph of the nebula in 1883 was a great improvement over our old friend Henry Draper's 1880 groundbreaking attempt:
It is still a little bit of a mystery to me that it took another two decades or so for people to consider that first photo (above) as "art"--perhaps it was the classification of the work as "scientific" and therefore not-necessarily-art, but folks surely made use of this and the Marey and other scientific photography of the 1880's in their art of the 19-teens. Trouvelot never lived to see it, though; and perhaps it wouldn't've made sense to him. I just don't know.
It is also amusing that for this great "finder" the root of the first half of his name in French is "find".
The full suite of fifteen images by Trouvelot, below, all thumbnails from NYPL:
A fascinating aspect in modern technology and warfare is the reliance upon pigeons and dogs--and their achievements--for war services. Evidently several hundred thousand pigeons were used to relay messages between divisional headquarters and battlefield positions and such during WWI, with something like 90% of the messages being delivered successfully--a remarkable achievement, since it was not uncommon for the pigeons to fly dozens of miles to perform their task. The services worked so well in fact that the American carrier pigeon service training facility for the army was not closed until 1957.
Dogs were used as guards and ambulance litter carriers, but it seems they were mostly used for communication purposes, taking messages back and forth through the masses and intricacies of trenches.
The image below comes from The Illustrated London News for 2 October 1915:
Osman, Lt. Col. A.H., Pigeons in the Great War: A Complete History of the Carrier Pigeon Service during the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (London, 1928) Read more at Suite101. [All images below are available for purchase from our blog bookstore, here.]
These images are just quietly magnificent. They were made by the Detroit Publishing Company, and published sometime between 1890 and 1900. The original is a glass negative, and this digital copy appears on the Library of Congerss site, here.
I've written a number of times on this blog about WWI images, many of which are in my own collection of News Service Photo Group images, like the one just below, which can be found here. Many of them are remarkable, astonishing even--especially those relating to soldiers whose war has ended, finding them as prisoners of war. At least they weren't dead, like the dozens of millions of other soldiers.
(Original photograph available at our blog bookstore here.)
I uncovered another of these images, tonight, long misplaced.
There were over 8 million soldiers taken prisoner during WWI, that in addition to the 21 million who were wounded and the 9.7 million killed: 38 million. Plus 6.8 million civilians who were killed: 45 million. And the numbers for civilians wounded are just, well, not reliable, as they were not really collected, or collectible. At the end of it all, there were probably between 50 to 75 million soldiers and civilians killed or wounded or taken captive during the war...not including civilians who were killed by the hardships or starvation caused by the conflict. Big, big numbers.
Some of these soldiers were taken in entire armies, surrenders of hundreds of thousands; and some came in pairs, or singles, as in the photo above. There are two captured Germans here, the two men in the middle, who are flanked by a British soldier and (I think) a Canadian officer, with two locals in the background. The short man front-and-center was paraded no doubt for his propaganda value--certainly not five feet tall, slender, with a tiny, not-average face. The Tommy is certainly enjoying the situation, while the officer maintains composure.
I'm sure the photo could've been made by any photographer for any army at any time.
The photograph was made in 1918, a few months before the end of the war, but there was still fighting to be done, and the value of showing the the British and Allied publics the "face" of a now-wilting enemy must have been considerable. There was considerable control and tightness over the sort of images allowed to be produced and published coming from the front line, photographs being made by a "pool" of news photographers the contents of which were closely evaluated by military censors before being allowed to circulate to newspapers and magazines.
Found below is a selection of photographic images from the Farm Security Administration collection at the Library of Congress. Today's photographer: Dorothea Lange.
On of the great innovations in a sea of great things accomplished during the Franklin Roosevelt administrations was the formation of the Farm Security Administration, a division of the government established to help farmers through the devastating Dust Bowl and Great Depression. A subset of the FSA was a photographic unit which was set up to document the progress made by the FSA (and provide, I am sure, for some much-needed good news, a hearts-and-minds campaign). This division was headed by Roy Emerson Stryker, who wound up hiring a collection of dream-team photographers unlike any ever assembled for a single purpose. Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn were sent out all across the country and wound up with the greatest and most beautiful photographic history ever assembled in the United States. There were about 77,000 images made, and I recall reading (somewhere) that the total budget for the Stryker group for the years 1936-1942 was about $100,000, meaning that each completed image cost just over a dollar apiece. So far as art funding by the government is concerned, that about the best it has done.
[Listed below are some samples of Lange's work at the LC--there are more than 3,000 images by her in the collection, found here. All images below are also expandable.]
Note: occassionally found among these images are those with a black dot in the center. That was the editorial work of Mr. Stryker, who for some reason hole-punched images that he thought weren't quite up to snuff, or unacceptable for some reason. In this ruination he also decided to archive them, which means if he was keeping them anyway he might as well have not plugged them, keeping them whole and intact and in their own pile. Anyway, that is what the black dot is all about.
These photographs are remarkable capsules of space and time--they hold the mostly-realized fates of their subjects, taken into custody in Sydney for crimes from prostitution to stealing to loitering to bigamy to murder and around and around. The poses are interesting in that there seems to be no unified way of making them, which means that most often the detained person had the opportunity to adopt whatever posed they pleased, given the emotional constraints of their situation. Some are defiant, some at complete ease in front of the camera; others are completely distracted and scared, and embarrassed and guilty. There also doesn't seem to be a segregated point for making the photographs, tough there is a common-looking wall and hallway for some of them. It would be interested to know if the Sydney police were making an editorial statement by placing their subjects in unflattering locations, like standing near a dripping faucet, or amidst trash, or in a garden, or in front of toilets. In any event the range of emotions is remarkable, even for looking through only a few hundred of the more than 100,000 images that are on line here and there from the good folks in Sydney. [The images below all started out their life at Sydney Justice and Police, and then used in parts by the following websites and blogs from which I harvested my selection below,: Retronaut , the Independent,, Live Journal the Daily Mail, and the Historic Houses Front (which also has full-ish records for each photograph). An interesting interpretation of many of the images can be found at SCAN.
Analytically interesting, an interpretative invitation. Apprehensive?
This photograph--a daguerreotype, really--is both extraordinary and terribly common, at the same time, and is so in a way that is difficult to define, just that it is so. It is the work of Frances Benjamin Johnston (whose collection resides at the Library of Congress) and was completed between 1845-1860, and shows the photographer's aunts. They make a formidable group. I'd like to be able to find the data that the outline of their portraits form, because to me they look lik a graph.
The photographer, Frances Johnston (1864-1952), was one of America's first successful female workers in the field of photography and photo-journalism. She opened a studio around 1890, and went into business, no doubt helped along by her wealthy family's social clipboard. That it took 50 years or so and the application of a family's small fortune to firmly establish a woman at this rank in photography, so close to the year 1900, so far into the advance of photography, is remarkable. The self-portrait, below, shows her mind:
she reveals herself a woman of the modern age, with her petticoats flaring and obvious, a cigarette in one hand, and a beer stein in the other, secrets no longer.
I have made numerous posts on this blog using images from my archive of American news service WWI photographs, though there are few depicting scenes just after the end of the war's end on 11:00 a.m. on 11/11/11. These photographs below do so, and all come from the National Library of Scotland (which can be accessed here). They are all "British Official War Photographs", which was a service similar to its American cousin--various news and photo agencies were given access to images produced by a pool of photographers, all of which passed by the eyes of a military censor. They were for the most part aimed at the "correct" version of the news, though given the subject matter there were plenty of images that were extremely powerful. In a war that claimed 100,000,000 casualties, the photographic image was a powerful war-time propaganda tool.
[Original reads: 'SCENES ON THE WESTERN FRONT. WAR TROPHIES SECTION. German trophies from Vimy Ridge and Messines. In centre is Prussian Guards drum.']
I've owned this photograph for a long time. It has been in the files for many years, waiting for something to happen to it, waiting for it to be a little understood in some slight way of identification. I've still not gotten around to it. To me, it has always seemed like a photograph of a small post out in the American Far West, 90 men in dress uniform inside their "fort", or outpost, the commander and the camp dog addressed in front and the sergeants out on the flanks. The enlisted men stand at ease.
I'm really not sure though who or where they are. The camp is very spread out, for one thing. And for the age (I reckon this to be made around 1885, perhaps a little earlier) I would've thought that boots would've been visible under trousers. And their hats/helmets--they really don't look to be made for the sun, and also seem too much of a bull's eye/target. That's on first glance--nothing about their uniform seems fitted to the place: no protection from the sun, trousers caught on low burrs and scrub, and so on. But the uniforms--and helmets--seem to be in line with the Prussian-influenced dress of the time (or at least around 1882), including the ribbon-y materials draped around the commander's neck. (I really don't know enough about U.S. Army uniforms to make a good qualified guess about who these men are.)
But the photo as art has always intrigued me, capturing the heart of a lonely place. I know, though, that having spent a little time hiking in the desert that the place is hardly empty, or blank. But it can still be lonely if you want it to be, a state which isn't dependent on any of the conditions mentioned in the title of this post--its a created space, the loneliness.
I've wondered too about who those people are, sitting together, (huddled?) at the far end of the soldiers' barracks, a speck visible over the shoulder of the sergeant (the last figure on the right in the top photo)? I suspect they must be Native Americans, or at least indigenous people. They've faded into history too with the rest of the people in the photograph, a chance at a piece of tangible memory missed because, well, no one made any notes (that survived, at least) about the image.
The photograph looks hot and cold to me at the same time...
(This image is available for purchase via our blog bookstore, here.)