Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered

Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered

Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered

Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered


Now we see as through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.

-Corinthians 1: 13

For more than half a century, the photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) have been regarded as the ultimate expression and achievement of the documentary movement in still photography. In 1939, noted photographer Edward Steichen chose more than forty FSA photographs for a special edition of U.S. Camera Annual. In his introduction he wrote that these government images were "the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures" -- high praise indeed from the man who would go on to create in 1955 the twentieth century's most celebrated photographic exhibition, "The Family of Man." Steichen continued to be fascinated with the FSA collection and in 1962 selected nearly two hundred file photographs for exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

Steichen was not the first artist to praise the photographic project and incorporate its images in his own work. In 1938, America's prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish used these government pictures as part of his impassioned critique of American society, a book entitled Land of the Free. So strong was MacLeish's belief in the inherent realism of these documents that he was moved to write that his work was "not a book of poems illustrated by photographs" but "a book of photographs illustrated by a poem." Modern scholars have enhanced the FSA's realistic reputation by presenting the photographic project as a painstaking. objective inquiry that disclosed the actuality of rural suffering during the Great Depression.

Academic praise for the FSA collection as a repository of revealed truth partakes of the widespread public belief in the inherent honesty and authenticity of all documentary photographs. Photographers themselves have helped to nurture this public trust. "There is a branch of photography concerned with justifying the medium's credibility," writes critic A. D. Coleman in a perceptive contribution to the century-old debate on photographic realism. He defines this justification as "a religious discourse between image-maker and viewer," involving "an act of faith on both parts." The photographer pledges not to manipulate the image by resorting to what Walker Evans once called "a bag of mysterious tricks. ." he viewer in turn promises not to examine the photographer's motives or to investigate the genesis of the final print. This compact protects the image-maker from untoward inquisition and the viewer from unnecessary doubt. The chapters that follow question this belief system but are not iconoclastic by design. Rather they assert the primacy of photographs as historical evidence and present a new methodology for visual analysis.

Literary predispositions have posed formidable obstacles to such a path of inquiry. Previous histories of the FSA project have been based on manuscripts and recorded recollections. Although . . .

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