The 20th century in pictures

In its claim to distinction, photography often invokes its ability to document reality and provide objective visual evidence. The pictures that have achieved this are probably those best remembered so that although photographs that imitated painting informed much of the medium’s early days, it is pictures like Roger Fenton’s of the Crimean War or Timothy O’Sullivan’s visual recordings of the American Civil War that entered the annals of photographic history as novel and adventurous works. But photography’s purported reliable objectivity has also been questioned and, for all the compelling images it has produced, documentary photography was frequently revealed to be the result of both physical and ideological manipulation. Eugene Appert’s photographs, for example, taken during the Paris Commune and manipulated by photographer to rouse anti-Communard sentiments, is one of the earliest instances of photography in the service of political propaganda, a phenomenon which grew as the visual culture of the early 20th century developed and as photography extended its reach to a mass public, particularly through advertising and news reportage. It is this double-edged quality of photography, its objectivity and partiality, which makes it both a documentation and a product of time. That comes across in Picturing the Century: 100 Years of American Photographs, an exhibition that covers 20th-century American photography and places on view a fraction of the vast and varied holdings of the United States National Archives. (An informative book with the same title by Bruce Bustard has also been issued.) The exhibition, which opens this evening at the Hellenic American Union, is touring US embassies and consulates worldwide and is a project developed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the federal agency responsible for handling the historical records of the US government. It was, in fact, federal agencies that commissioned most of the pictures that nowadays form part of the National Archives. Depending on the period, a different objective was set each time: During the New Deal era, for instance, agencies sponsored photography projects to celebrate the economic progress made under President Roosevelt. But there are also more neutral, informative pictures recording the details of a particular scene, the varieties of a plant or what a machine looked like. Other pictures were commissioned or used by other organizations first and came to NARA only subsequently. Images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in the early 20th century, for example, were found in the records of the Public Health Service while Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers, also from that same era, were used by the National Child Labor Committee to lobby Congress so that laws would be passed restricting the employment of children. The reasons the federal agency collected these photographs are as varied as the scope of the images themselves. To assess such a vast collection (in Washington DC alone, the holdings number more than 8 million photographs in the still-picture stacks, with another 9 million aerial photographs and billions of textual records) in terms of a single criterion would underestimate both NARA’s broad-ranging aims and photography’s potential. But despite their diversity, what these pictures all point to is a growing reliance on photography as a tool for documentation. This growing turn to photography can be traced back to the early 1900s and it may be intentionally symbolic that the exhibition also begins in the early 20th century. It was back then that Kodak issued the $1 Brownie camera, making photography accessible to the mass public. Roughly at the same time, The New York Times reintroduced its Sunday Magazine as a photographic pictorial, further boosting photography’s rapid development. Photography was given a further fillip in the 1930s when Life, the popular magazine devoted to photojournalism, was first published. Ironically, the years of the lingering Great Depression were documentary photography’s golden age. Federal photographic campaigns aimed both at recording economic devastation and touting governmental reforms were commissioned in great numbers. One of the most famous, which later became known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and was undertaken by the Resettlement Administration, relied on the distinct vision of contributors such as Roy Stryker (also director of the campaign), Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee and artist Ben Shahn among others to produce some of the period’s most evocative and human images. In the photographs from the 1930s, America comes across as a world in transition. In those of the 1940s, it is a world at war. Technology, including radiographs, cable and telephone, enabled images to be sent from the battlefront in a matter of hours, but the kinds of images that finally went out to the public underwent careful federal governmental control. As is to be expected at a time of crisis, photography was used to guide public opinion and bolster national solidarity. Some photographs were censored because of wartime restrictions. Military censors active more than a year after Pearl Harbor also restricted the distribution of pictures showing dead or badly injured Americans. This had changed by 1943, as more grisly images reached the public, shocking them out of what an Office of War Information memorandum referred to as their ostrich-like optimism. In the midst of pictures recording the afflictions of war, it is perhaps strange to find Ansel Adam’s optically soothing vistas of the American landscape (they were commissioned by the secretary of the interior). They are sweeping and timeless but in another sense, queerly patriotic as well. Like many of the exhibition’s pictures, Adam’s photographs are not just images of a nation’s history but of the entire world. They are as likely to stir sentiments common to all humanity as they are to speak to Americans. The same can be said of a poignant image showing the frightened expression of a US Marine during World War II or of the remarkable image of Earth from space, taken by the Apollo astronauts. So while it is probably true that there is no neutral image and no innocent eye, as Gombrich put it, it is also legitimate to allow oneself to enjoy the visual power that certain images possess, in the knowledge that the more critical our outlook, the greater this visual pleasure becomes.

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