The 1930s remain in our visual imagination with a vividness that hardly exists from other eras — at least eras we didn’t actually live through. And it is through the photography of the period that this happens: It is hard to recognize how many of the canonized photographers from that era gave us documentary and quasi-documentary images of the times. Elsewhen, artists — and the photographers — often sought something more universal, or general, or eternal, but the quota of work from the 1930s screams out the time of its birth.
Think of them: Brassai, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, the whole army of photographers working for the Works Project Administration under Roy Stryker — our image trove from the 1930s is a stuffed portfolio.
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If we tend to distinguish between photography as journalism and photography as art — art with its formal concerns — then the work of Life magazine photographers falls into the first camp and the more elevated work of photographers such as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham or Frederick Sommer would seem to be of another genus. But especially in the prewar decade, the photographers we honor as artists often were the ones who left us with a chronicle of their times. It is hard to picture America during the Depression without the black and white images of breadlines, dustbowl farms, iron workers and iron-willed matriarchs reigning over raw wood kitchen tables in unelectrified Appalachian cabins.
(I am not forgetting later movements of “street photography,” and certainly not forgetting Robert Frank, William Klein or Garry Winogrand, but their work on one hand also seems like a throwback to an earlier era, and on the other, is more consciously concerned with formal problems, like composition, lighting and contrast — and often with even more Postmodern concerns, such as how photography makes the world look. In the ’30s, the primary concern was sociological: These people we have been privileged to look at.)
I bring all this up because a friend sent me a link to an unusual archive at Duke University of old documents, photographs and films, primarily from North Carolina. In it, there is a set of three films, or rather three reels of randomly edited home movies, from Madison, N.C., taken between 1939 and 1941 and available for download. You can find them at:
These films appear to have been taken by a single person, who filmed schoolkids, class by class, streaming out of the schoolhouse, workers leaving the factory and pedestrians walking down the streets of Madison and neighboring Mayodan. At times, he attempts trick photography, and they are not always in perfect focus. The first reel is in color, the remaining two reels are black and white. It is clear he (or she) favors framing with the subject in the right half of the picture, but it seems less like a formal concern and more like a idiosyncratic tic.
Madison particularly interests me because it is where my wife grew up. She was born in 1941 and so, the images in these movies pretty closely approximates the town she knew as a little girl. A few of the teachers shown in them are teachers she knew in school.
But I also found that if I excised individual frames from the motion, I could see them almost as a new source of FSA photos, or undiscovered images of Walker Evans. I have included a bunch of them with this blog post.
One has to forgive the lower quality of focus or color, taken as they are from what must be a 16mm original, but what strikes me most in them is the quality of individual human beings, the person behind the eyes that stares out at us from the pictures. It is the same face — or the same kind of face — that we see in Dorothea Lange’s California agriculture photos. There is joy, suspicion, hope, hopelessness, anger, privilege, satisfaction and shyness in these faces (sometimes as the film progresses, the same suspicious face turns friendly).
And I come to see them not so much as impersonal esthetic constructs, but as a doorway into each of them as people. Individuals, shining lights of the cosmos bound in skin.
And then, by way of looking back at the old, familiar pictures of Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Ben Shahn and others, you come to the realization that what makes them special — what, indeed, makes them important — is not their photographic quality, not their compositional innovations or formal intent, but that through those rectangular frames burn the lives of actual beings. What brings them alive for us esthetically is exactly the quotient of compassion, of empathy, we bring to them. Do we see them as esthetic exercises? Certainly that aspect exists in them, but such aspect exists in abstract torn-paper collages, too. No, what gives them power is that connection they enable between us in our age, and those people in the pictures, in their age and we see they are us.