Documentary photographers and socially concerned photojournalists have been working in the United States since the 1880s. At that time, Jacob A. Riis wanted to bring to light the atrocious living conditions in the lodgings, basements and back streets of New York City. Riis’s photographs were the proof that society needed to change. Thanks to advances in technology it was possible for the images to be reproduced and distributed to a wide audience.
Lewis W. Hine followed in Riis’s footsteps when he started working for the National Child Labor Committee. He travelled over 50,000 miles covering and documenting various states between Maine and Texas. He photographed children working in mills, mines, canneries, fields and working on the streets. Hine’s aim was to have “photographic proof” which “no anonymous or signed denials” could challenge. His photographs were displayed in magazines, books, pamphlets, slide lectures and even travelling exhibitions.
Due to the Great Depression documentary photography became widely known due to agencies’ efforts to showcase the dire conditions farm workers and migrants were subjected to. The Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) sent out talented photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn to document the economic and social disaster. Thanks to the work of these photographers, documentary photography gained its well-deserved recognition that used to be reserved for fine art photography. As a result the images were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, starting with a show of Evans’s work in 1938.
The backings of the FSA had an invigorating effect on social documentary since Roy E. Stryker, the Section Director, as well as the photographers acknowledged the want for eliciting empathy. An additional characteristic of the FSA project, which accumulated 270,000 images, was the array of artistic approaches of the different photographers. All of the photographers used small and fast equipment, with one exception being Evans who used an 8 x 10 camera, which made it possible to register ephemeral moments. His most famous images were published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for which he teamed up with writer James Agee. Ben Shahn used a 35 mm camera to direct Stryker’s attention to the human aspect as a source of emotive appeal, whereas Dorothea Lange used a Rollei because she wanted to keep control over her own negatives.
It was common practice for the FSA and other governmental agencies to give shooting scripts, to the photographers, who did not own the negatives and did not have any control over how their images might be cropped, captioned, or arranged in the periodical or daily press. Even though this practice was acceptable in the commercial press, Lange as well as Evans did not like this way of working.
Without a doubt, one of Lange’s most iconic photographs is Migrant Mother, which depicts a mother and her three children that are trying to hide from the photographer. Her image became known as the “Madonna of the Depression.” Lange’s work communicates concrete moments by the way she chooses to frame a facial expression, body language or a landscape arrangement.
The FSA also sent Lange to the South to document rural America. In Mississippi, Lange photographed the agricultural workers and sharecroppers living and working in the Delta. Lange’s photograph Mississippi Delta children shows several African – American children on and around a porch of a home in the Mississippi Delta. She had no interest in creating images that conformed with the social clichés viewers might have about her subjects. She would wait for the ideal moment to show her sitters relaxed and without the obvious doom on their faces. Lange was interested in showing a different side to her viewers that a glimpse of the inner workings of her subjects. She preferred modest backdrops such as a field or a porch documenting the toils and suffering was a key aspect, but so was capturing the hope that emanated from her subjects. Lange’s photographs let the viewer look into the soul of the sitters who retained their dignity even when facing the camera and baring their lives for everyone to see.
Below are some examples of contemporary documentary photography of the tent city in Sacramento, California. Do you think these images have the same impact as Dorothea Lange’s or the ones of her peers had? What about in 70 years time?