Photography Redeveloped

By Russell Lee.  Reproduction from color slide. LC-USF351-317. LC-DIG-fsac-1a34096. FSA/OWI Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Russel Lee: Faro and Doris Caudhill, Homesteaders

My friend, Ed Farnham, sent me a link to an incredible collection of seventy color photographic images taken by american photographers working for the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information.  The dates of these images range from the late Depression to the middle of World War II.  Thanks, Ed!  I recall seeing these images once before.  But they were mixed with other black and white images of that era.  It wasn’t until I reviewed this specific Kodachrome collection that I began to appreciate the significance of their effect on our generation.

These images help me to understand how the mechanisms that drive our perception of history, along with all its pre-conditioned conceptual and emotional responses, relate closely to how deep beneath our culture’s skin these documents appear to rest.  For example, in western culture we tend to relate qualities of color (even qualities of black and white) in visual media to points on a historical time-line.  We proceed to intuitively calculate the relevance, or lack of relevance, of a medium’s content to the context of our present lives.  As the color in an old photograph shifts and fades, much of its original context, subtext and intent begins a transmogrifying process of bleaching and redevelopment.  The pigment of its original DNA is gradually drawn away, and is often replaced, incrementally, by a sheen of culturally instituted meaning that allows us to proceed with our lives according to our immediate needs.  A faded, seventy-year-old, black and white photograph of a simply dressed homesteading couple is touching, but mostly serves us now by giving us the satisfaction that as time proceeds, our condition succeeds—the opposite of what cultural primitivism would assert as evidence of the inevitable decay of our society.

Ignoring cultural primitivism, most of us make use of a calendar to measure a culture’s forward progress.  So it is shocking to us when that same aged image is presented to us with evidence in full color that blood may still be coursing through the capillaries of this healthy couple’s tanned skin, and that the violent purple storm in the background seems to be passing harmlessly over their crops.  This isn’t just an interesting effect; it’s a potentially destructive effect!  This unexpected shift of the past toward the present could be quite threatening to both ends.  Those harmless clouds are suddenly the same ones that we hope won’t wash away Southern Pakistan this Fall.  At the same time, that quiet bag lady sitting on the curb outside our corner laundromat smoking a broken cigarette may have a story to tell us today that might not be properly interpreted from an archived digital image file viewed seventy years from now.

The candle burns at both ends.  When Rembrandt’s famous painting, ‘Night Watch’ was cleaned properly in 1940, it became the ‘Day Watch’.  And the fiction that time had infused into its darkened varnish dissolved without leaving a salable story in its place.  The painting was clean; but the Old Master’s status was smudged.  And consider how less menial Michelangelo’s personal sins became each time a new panel of the Sistine Chapel was restored during the last twenty-five years.  The newly revealed bright tones and intense colors threatened to insinuate the Renaissance’s timeline on top of our own.  Without cues from smoky hues, this masterpiece needs to work a little harder to compete for attention against fresher, cutting-edge continuous narratives.

The history of photography is relatively compressed.  But we quickly discern changes in its technologies, which we use as guides toward distilling and editing the contents and effects of the medium as it ages.  In the case of war images, Mathew Brady could accomplish more with a found body, in a few seconds, than his contemporary, Vasily Vereshchagin, could convey in his painting of a pile of skulls, produced over several weeks.  Vereshchagin’s work is masterful and important.  But Brady’s photo wins the day with an immediate sense of unaltered verisimilitude that makes no bones about its editorial intent.

Vasily Vereshchagin, Apotheosis of War, 1871 (right)

Mathew Brady: Death of A Sharpshooter / Vasily Vereshchagin: Apotheosis of War

Some of the original impact of Brady’s Civil War photographs has survived.  But our perceptions of imperfections in his era’s lenses and techniques have inured us to their full impact.  We’ve certainty seen work of better technical quality issued during each war that followed.  It seems that each new war’s delivery of images containing ever-higher levels of visceral verisimilitude has a degenerative effect on the power of images from previous conflicts.  At the height of World War II, Life Magazine needed to remove details of maggots on a photograph of a dead US soldier’s body to make it suitable for public consumption.  Years later, when the magazine chose to republish the image, it realized that the maggots needed to properly repopulate the dead body before the photo could carry anywhere near its original impact.  This was the Viet Nam war era, when color photography was making its first impact on printed publications.  Black and white maggots from Iwo Jima had lost their impactful place in history.

Our diet of photography has been prepared, for the most part, by printed media, cinematography and our family camera.  Though color film and processes have been available since the early nineteen hundreds, it was expensive and fussy for amateur photographers, and expensive and impractical to reproduce in printed media and movies.  Television took even longer to accommodate color in their productions.  Most of us who are middle-aged rely only on our memories of color while we pore through photo albums of our childhood.  I know from a black and white photo from my youth that it was my father’s green 1952 Chevy sedan that I was leaning against when I was five years old.  And it looks like I posed for that Brownie snap even longer ago than it feels.

So, the government accountants must have howled until sunup when they received the first bills for purchasing and processing all those rolls and plates of very expensive Kodachrome film.  In the middle of a national financial crisis, it was a mistake as obvious as thousand-dollar toilet seats and crates of gilded goblets.  Without any other comparable, contemporary media context, the color must have seemed garish and absurd—even to some of the photographers who were assigned to use it.  Only a handful of photographers and assignment editors, along with perhaps even fewer astute and dedicated editors and bureaucrats, could envision more than a slim relevance of these color images to their place in history.

Eighty years later, we’re dealing with the same shock.  How can these color images represent a time and status quo that we believe we have since evolved from?  How are our storms less ravaging?  How are our poor less needy?  How are our war-dead less disfigured and bloody?  What is the real shape of industry’s progress?  Old barns still are red.  A girl in a pinafore dress looks the same riding on a buckboard as she does sitting in the back seat of a Mazda.  Some folk still work hard all day; some still don’t work at all.

Unintentionally, perhaps, the mundane is suddenly elevated as art.  Most importantly, the present suddenly owes a larger debt to the past.

Oct. 20, 2010

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