Academic journal article American Studies

BEN SHAHN'S AMERICAN SCENE: Photographs, 1938

Academic journal article American Studies

BEN SHAHN'S AMERICAN SCENE: Photographs, 1938

Article excerpt

BEN SHAHN'S AMERICAN SCENE: Photographs, 1938. By John Raeburn. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press. 2010.

Raeburn continues his research on 1930's American photography with his new book, covering Shahn's work on small town America with the Farm Security Administration's Historical Section. Although Shahn's assignment from director Roy Stryker had originally been the "harvest in Ohio," Shahn's photographs of small town life grew to represent the largest portion of images. Loosely based on Stryker's guidelines for what to photograph in order to document the "average American" in the face of fascist threats overseas, Shahn delivers views which are occasionally poignant-but most often quotidian-at least compared to some of his more famous Depression-era images which immediately spring to mind; therefore, it is quite helpful to have Raeburn as a guide.

The book is organized thematically with chapters devoted to the main street, sidewalks, modernity, the poor, and race, although the chapters are certainly interconnected by recurring motifs: people gathered to chat on the streets, vernacular shop windows and signs, and cars parked on small town streets, for example. The town squares of Shahn's images are unexceptional-looking, which Raeburn reports is part of Shahn's compositional strategy to emphasize "the built environment's banality and imply the town's enervation" (50). In Shahn's view, the small town, despite the arrival of the automobile, had entered a "period of decline" represented in its "disused public spaces" (2); one certainly feels that quality in many of the images. Raeburn also argues that Shahn, following the intelligentsia's assumption (and Stryker's shooting script) that "small towns were a bedrock of stable tradition" (132), avoided images of modernity's encroachments (new car dealers, chain department stores, and ubiquitous movie theaters). …

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