Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Status of Social Realist Photography

The photograph has been an integral part of social change in the 19th & 20th centuries. For example, it changed the way we think about one issue in particular--child labor--in the United States. The picture on the left is from Lewis Hine's 1908 collection of photos for the National Child Labor Committee, taken in a South Carolinian textile factory. Hine said his photographs of child labor provided unquestionable evidence of exploitation and inserted text captions to put his pictures in context. In the album and book How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis visually documented how child workers in New York and St. Louis operated in the slums, such as those in the oyster picking business.

The picture on the right is a famous photograph of a child poverty project by Stephen Shames, taken in the Bronx in 1989. The picture further below is from Marion Post Wolcott's collection of Farm Security Administration pictures, taken during the Great Depression, depicting the dire circumstances of children during that era. These pictures changed social policy because in some sense the entire photographic enterprise rests on the assumption that what is imaged is real, or that something about it is real. It seems all that is needed is a photograph, and that can be better than any witness. It's irrefutable evidence. This is the "new visual code" that Susan Sontag wrote about in On Photography.

The effect of modern photography on our education now provides "most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the future," Sontag writes. These images change our perspective and in another sense these images anesthetize us to the world. On the one hand, the lack of photographic evidence can anesthetize us to injustice. On the other hand the hyperreality of over-abundant images, where we are so used to seeing them, and using the them as the evidence, the photograph itself is the context. The picture is the story. The photoblog has become and important part of blog life because of this reason. Text is boring sometimes. An article with images will hold your attention much longer than text alone.

Yet there is also an unspoken skepticism involved, since we are never entirely sure that what the picture says is real, though it has been elevated to that status. Susan Sontag (pictured right, perhaps) wrote that the Farm Security Administration even doctored the photographs, and obsessed over the lighting and positioning of the subjects. It's this kind of skepticism that has de-elevated the photograph from its pedestal. And it thus seems that over the course of a century the social realism of the photographic enterprise had lost a great deal of its credibility, like the all-encompassing meta-narratives that lost their weight before then.

This is a curious situation, then, considering that this is supposed to be the age that is dominated by the image.

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