MA Cultural History
Source based project: “FSA Photography: Dorothea Lange &Walker Evans”
This source commentary deals with the methodological, interpretive and theoretical issues raised by using documentary photographs as historical sources. The problems and advantages connected with this type of historical source are going to be illustrated taking documentary photographs created for the photographic section of the US American federal government during the interwar period as an example. By focusing on two out of the approximately 80, 000 photos of this collection which were produced by the two most renown photographers working for the project, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, this source commentary is going to argue that using them profitably as sources in writing cultural history, requires at least as much or even more critical consideration and background information than is required by other sources. This can be put down to several reasons.
The first characteristic associated with photographs that seems to be one of their prime advantages when compared to other types of sources such as all different kinds of written sources or even other kinds of visual sources such as paintings, seems to be their apparent objectivity. Whereas the other kinds of sources are hand recorded (involving pencil and paper) documents and are thus regarded to be more likely prejudiced by the writer´s or painter´s perception of reality, photography is considered to be a method of representing reality in a more direct way because it involves mechanical recording (a camera) and is thus regarded as being more objective and less likely to be biased.
With regard to the photographs that are focused on in this source commentary, this belief seems at first sight even to be more the case because they belong to the genre of documentary photography that is characterised as ‘reporting actual facts’. Photographers, like Walker Evans, actually used these popular misconceptions of photography as being objective documents. Above conveying the information trough his images, he gave them further authority by evoking the impression of ‘naked realism’. He did this by using his artistic skills to manipulate reality in order to produce exactly the effects he intended. As the example of Evans shows, with regard to these photographs it seems necessary to explore how aspects of the producer´s background such as standpoint, personality, artistic mentality, social class and political affiliation influence the process of image creation. With regard to the documentary photographs of Lange and Evans that were produced within the framework of a governmental photography section, it seems furthermore necessary to pay attention to the way their work was influenced by the instructions and guidelines of their client.
The second characteristic of this type of historical source is the fact that ‘the photograph as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning’. This can be put down to the fact that images have two levels of meaning. Despites its ‘denotative’ meaning which refers to its literal, descriptive meaning and the few information which is given by its caption, Dorothea Lange´s image Migrant Mother does not say much. It conveys the information that a migrant woman, her baby and two children that are hiding their faces behind their mother´s back were photographed in Nipomo, California in March 1936. This is typical of the images belonging to the documentary photography of the 1930s. ‘With precious little additional information, we come to know them as types: migrant farmers, sharecroppers, hoboes, unemployed men, desperate mothers and ragged children.’
The other level of meaning of a photograph, its ‘connotative’ meaning, implies more culturally specific meanings. These rely on the cultural and historical context of the image and its viewers´ lived, felt knowledge of these circumstances, all that the image means to them personally and socially. The cultural values and beliefs that are expressed at this level of connotation were classified by the photography theoretic Roland Barthes under the term of ‘myth’. This term refers to a hidden set of rules and conventions through which meanings, which are in reality specific to certain groups are made to seem universal and given for a whole society. Myth thus allows the connotative meaning of a particular thing to appear to be denotative, hence literal or natural. This seems to be of importance with regard to using the documentary photographs as historical sources because it makes aware of the fact that the processes constituting such a ‘myth’ have to be uncovered. Doing this it has to be explored which cultural values and beliefs expressed in the photographs were in reality group specific during the 1930s but were presented as being universal. Unmasking this process will moreover give an insight into the ideologies of the 1930s because they - just like Barthe´s term of myth - are connotations parading as denotations. This requires some knowledge about the historical and cultural context in which these documentary photographs were produced, about the situation and the ways in which they were presented to their viewers and about who their intended viewers were.
 Cf.: Lawrence W. Levine: Unpredictable Past - Explorations in American Cultural History, New York/Oxford 1993, p. 256: ‘The renowned photographic section, which had operated under the auspices of three different agencies of the federal government – the Resettlement Administration (RA) from 1935 to 1937, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1937 to 1942, and the Office of War Information (OWI) from 1942 to 1943.’
 Cf.: James Curtis: Mind´s Eye, Mind´s Truth – FSA Photography Reconsidered, Philadelphia 1989, p. 10.
 Cf.: Marita Sturken/ Lisa Cartwright: Practices of Looking – An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford 2001, p. 17/ Susan Sontag: On Photography, London/New York 1979, p. 52n..
 William Stott: Documentary Expression And Thirties America, Chicago/London 1986, p. 18.
 Cf.: James Curtis: Mind´s Eye, Mind´s Truth – FSA Photography Reconsidered, Philadelphia 1989, p. 23.
 Lawrence W. Levine: The Unpredictable Past – Explorations in American Cultural History, New York/ Oxford 1993, p. 270.
 Cf.: Marita Sturken/ Lisa Cartwright: Practices of Looking – An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford 2001, p. 19.
 In order to avoid confusion with the other images of the Migrant Mother series, a photocopy of the image referred to is attached in the appendix.
 Lawrence W. Levine: The Unpredictable Past – Explorations in American Cultural History, New York/Oxford 1993, p. 272.
 Cf.: Marita Sturken/Lisa Cartwright: Practices of Looking – An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford 2001, p. 19.
 Cf.: Ibid.
 Cf.: Marita Sturken/ Lisa Cartwright: Practices of Looking – An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford 2001, p. 21: ‘For our purposes we define as the broad but indispensable, shared set of values and beliefs trough which individuals live out their complex relations to a range of social structures. Ideologies are widely varied and exist at all levels of all cultures … Our ideologies are diverse and ubiquitous; they inform our everyday lives in often subtle and barely noticeable ways.’
 Cf.: Ibid. p. 22.
 Cf.: Susan Sontag: On Photography, London/New York 1979, p. 105n.: ‘Because each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted. A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen: thus Smith´s Minamata photographs will seem different on a contact sheet, in a gallery, in a political demonstration, in a police file, in a photographic magazine, in a general news magazine, in a book, on a living-room wall. Each of these situations suggests a different use for the photographs but none can secure their meaning.’