New York

“FSA: The Illiterate Eye”

The Hunter College Art Galleries, Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery

The argument that much of the photographic work done for the Farm Security Administration in the ’30s and ’40s was simply propaganda for New Deal farm policies has become a critical commonplace. The work of this Depression-era documentary group has long been celebrated as an example of the use of photography to achieve social reform as well as an important attempt to depict the full scope of society. In recent years, though, critics and scholars have pointed out the editorial control exerted by Roy Stryker, the economist who directed the Historical Section of the FSA. Stryker not only sent out detailed shooting scripts to his photographers; when they resisted his direction (as Walker Evans did), he pushed them out of the group.

Through his selection of work and in his essay in the accompanying catalogue, Maurice Berger, the curator of this exhibition, argues that the picture of America shown in these images is essentially false, and furthermore, that it is contradicted by other work in the FSA archive—work that, because it did not confirm the progressive message that Stryker and the New Deal tried to promote, has seldom been seen. So instead of heroic farmers and noble workers Berger has shown us dirtyfaced children in wretched shacks and families crowded into decrepit tenements. The contrast between the two versions of America was pointed up most effectively in the side-by-side presentation of a 1939 Dorothea Lange photograph of a sharecropper’s family, in which a pleasant-looking, buxom woman is surrounded by neatly dressed, fat-faced children, and a 1935 Ben Shahn photograph of a similar family (black, this time; Lange’s is white), in which a weary mother and her scowling children, dirty and clad in rags, sit on the porch of a dilapidated shack.

Berger has staked out his position with force and eloquence, but his argument suffers from both curatorial and critical flaws. Many of the photographs exhibited come from only a few photo series, among them, two shot in the U.S.Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by Jack Delano; the particularly squalid poverty represented in some of them could be dismissed as atypical. (Shahn, who emerges as Berger’s hero, was not an official member of Stryker’s “camera team,” although he did take one long shooting trip through the South in 1935 and his work was included in the FSA files.) Others—including a 1943 photograph of flowers on the grave of a merchant seaman, also by Delano—seemed more or less irrelevant to Berger’s argument.

Moreover, Berger failed to ask whether Stryker’s cleaned-up image of America was effective as propaganda, or simply a moralizing attempt to produce a picture of poverty that a middle-class audience could stomach. In reaffirming the rhetorical nature of documentary photography Berger has ignored various factors that, in the case of the FSA work, shaped that rhetoric—including not only the inner workings of the group but also the political and social context in which the photographs were produced. Beyond these objections lies a more basic question: whether Berger’s antiromanticism isn’t itself as tendentious as Stryker’s more openly manipulative progressivism.

Charles Hagen