Review of Urban Books: “American Modern: Documentary Photography By Abbott, Evans, And Bourke-White”

R.U.B.ing you the right way since 2012.

A R.U.B. (Review of Urban Books) of:

Sharon Corwin, et. al. American Modern: Documentary Photography By Abbott, Evans, And Bourke-White. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

What is documentary photography? This book proposes some tentative answers, based on case studies of three American photographers working in the 1930s: Bernice Abbott, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. According to the essays in this book, each photographer’s photographic practice and published work indicated different answers to this question.

There are three essays in this book, that detail the careers and artistic philosophy of each photographer during the 1930s. Each essay is followed by a series of photographs created by each photographer; these photos also appeared in the exhibit which the book accompanied.

The essays point out some interesting convergences and divergences between each of the artists’ philosophies. For instance, in the essay on Abbott, Terri Weissman claims that Abbott’s “realist model of artistic making… embraced what realists might have been expected to shun: instability, contingency, the indirect, and the unrepresentable.” In doing so, she “avoided the danger of traditional conceptions of realism: capturing a world that is completed, static, finished, present in itself, and fully available as a packaged meaning to the viewer.” Her photos, Weissman claims, “make the viewer aware of the processes of representation” (29-30).

Jessica May’s essay on Walker Evans’ photography in the 1930s emphasizes his desire to maintain his independence as an artist in the face of institutional demands. May focuses on Evans’ work for the Resettlement Administration and for MoMA, where he was both an employee and an exhibiting artist. May claims that Evans “understood that photographic narratives [are] highly vulnerable to being co-opted by discrete interests, and [that] he actively sought to control the narratives of his own photographs.” “For Evans,” she continues, “the ultimate answer to questions about the work of the artist and the nature of the photograph involved winding the questions together and making the one unthinkable without the other” (80-81).

According to Sharon Corwin, Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs were the most commercially successful of those made by the three photographers presented in this book (108). Her late 1920s to early 1930s work emphasized the huge scale of industrial capitalism, both in terms of manufacturing plants and the mass produced products that proceeded from such plants (109-115). Later in the 1930s, her work shifted focus to the labouring bodies that produced these industrial age products (115-128). Corwin claims that over this decade, Bourke-White “traveled [sic] the same path as her subjects, as she documented a changing American landscape in which the power and promise of industry had collided with the new realities of pain and suffering ushered in by the Depression” (128). Corwin attributes Bourke-White’s success in travelling this path to her “ability to effectively draw on and redeploy the visual and narrative conventions of both mass production and mass media” (128). In doing so, “she established a mode of documentary photography that was highly legible to its viewers” (128).

Although the editor’s afterword claims that the photographers shared an “idiosyncratic mix of influences and methods” (158), their different definitions of what documentary photography is and ought to be raises an interesting question for me: What role do photographs play on this blog?

I have recently used photographs to illustrate group walks through Victoria’s Oaklands and Vic West neighbourhoods. This was primarily an illustrative task that aimed towards what Weissman called “traditional conceptions of realism,” but the use of collage also offered artistic, documentary opportunities. One such example was a collage of pictures taken at Haultain Corners:

This collage works well from an artistic and a documentary perspective. Artistically, it gives a sense of that which it seeks to represent, by placing a photograph of buildings at each corner in a grid similar to that created by the streets and buildings they represent. This artistic function supports the documentary function by aiding the imagination in constructing a “realistic,” legible idea of what it is like to be there.

Such artistic claims must be understood with a degree of skepticism, since an artist’s work is always subject to interpretation by others and to change and flux over time. This point is made several times in American Modern — each photographer’s work changed over the 1930s, and changed again in the decades that followed.

Overall, this book was a useful way for me to start questioning my own documentary and artistic practice. However, the format of the book made it hard for me to read. Most of the photographs were placed on individual pages following each essay, but some were placed alongside the text. The authors of each essay would sometimes refer to photos on the same page as their text, and sometimes to a plate number that followed the essay. This required frequent flipping through the book, leading to a discontinuous reading experience. This format seems to be common in exhibit catalogues, and has the benefit of presenting the photos as important, significant works of art in their own right. I’m not sure how to resolve the tension between these two ideas (textual interpretation versus independent artistic value), but perhaps new forms of electronic presentation of museum and art gallery exhibits will provide opportunities to do so.

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This entry was posted in Architecture, Art, Book Review, Photographs, Public Art, R.U.B. (Review of Urban Books), Reading List, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Review of Urban Books: “American Modern: Documentary Photography By Abbott, Evans, And Bourke-White”

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