"Refraining America" offers a distilled representation of some of the best documentary photography produced by immigrants during the tense years of the 1930s and 1940s. Viewed from the perspective of the 1990s, Center of Creative Photography director Terence Pitt's choice of work by Alexander Alland, Robert Frank, John Gutmann, Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth, Lisette Model and Marion Palfi helps to restore the reputation of the documentary genre.
The bad rap on documentary often centers on the internally conflicting goals of educating "the public" about a specific social condition and creating empathy for the subject affected by the particular social circumstances. A heightened focus on the subject all too often personalizes and universalizes social inequalities, thwarting views of the specific economic, cultural, political and other structures responsible for subjugation. Documentary photography thus runs the risk of neutralizing its capacity to alert an audience to the conditions it represents. The risk is greater when the photographer's practice is directed and funded by an institution and when that agency has an explicit mandate - be it a repressive or a liberal one.
Unlike many other well-known documentary photographers of the 1930s and 1940s, the photographers included in "Reframing America" did not work for a U.S. government agency, such as the photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration, and thus cannot be charged with developing a highly-edited body of imagery that could be used to help restore the nation's damaged psyche during the years of the economic depression and into World War II. Working independently, each photographer was inclined to view their new country through the perspective of their own position as immigrants, critically sharpened by their experiences of persecution in Europe. Alland fled civil war in Russia and came to New York City after a brief exile in Istanbul. Gutmann left Germany in 1933. Mieth left Germany at the age of 15 with Hagel to wander throughout Eastern Europe and Turkey. Concerned about the rise of fascism, Hagel emigrated to the U.S. in 1928; Mieth arrived in 1930. Model, born Lisette Stern, moved from Vienna with her Jewish, Austro-Czech father and Italian mother to France in 1933. Her brother was deported to Vichy, France and died in a concentration camp. She emigrated to New York City in 1938. Born in Berlin of Hungarian and German parents, Palfi left Germany for Amsterdam in 1936. Fleeing the German army four years later, she settled in New York City. Frank did not arrive in the U.S. until after the war: his German-Jewish father emigrated to Switzerland and Frank, born in Zurich, fared the war years better than many. It is important to note, as the catalog fails to, that U.S. immigration policy during the 1930s and early 1940s was not very open: explicit quotas, implicit racism, a strict foreign service policy and the expense of obtaining visas and transportation from Europe, among other factors, conspired to make emigration impossible for millions.
Of the photographs in "Refraining America," Alland's photographs imply that he embraced his adopted country the least critically. Many of his photographs celebrate the promise of opportunity often underscored by the mandate of assimilation for new immigrants. His Photomontage (c. 1943), presents cut-outs of school children of diverse ethnicities circled around a white female teacher whose profile is echoed by that of a white male student. The entire group is shown against the background of a school poster that reads "America - A Nation of One People From Many Countries." Nonetheless, Alland, like the other photographers in the exhibition, could not ignore the racism endured by centuries by African Americans since their forced arrival. This is most evident in the photograph University of Chicago Students Prepare Placards for a Demonstration against Racial Discrimination in the Medical School (c. 1946). Despite Alland's explicit comment on racism, the cruelty of institutional policies is blunted by his theatrical lighting and compositions. …