Monday, March 17, 2014

Can a photograph define a time?

I'm going through the interview process at Devry University for a teaching gig. It's been an interesting process if for no other reason than I have not been through such a process before. Anyhow, I had to give 20 minute teaching demonstration. I choice the Roy Strykers photographers and the impact of such photography. The follow was my demonstration's lesson plan.


I'm Anthony ILacqua. Thanks for this opportunity and thank you for being here. I have a BA of English from Metropolitan State College of Denver. Metro is a University now, but at the time I graduated it was still a state school. I hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. As you can tell, I do have a liberal arts background. I'm the editor in chief of Umbrella Factory Magazine which is a small literary magazine. I have two novels, Dysphoric Notions and Undertakers of Rain, both published with Ring of Fire Publishing. Although I would love to talk books for this teaching demonstration/interview, that would be an easy escape. And rather than analysis heavy subjects, ancient tomes, or the pieces of archaic thought we have all studied and perhaps forgotten, I choose to open a dialogue about something we can readily share today. As I said, I have a liberal arts background, how do you think the liberal arts can shape history? Do you think it can influence society, or the future for that matter?

The Preface: Who has a camera on them right now? How many people have snapped a “picture” today? And do we still call them “pictures”? I feel like they are often referred to as an image, a pic or a “selfie” if the subject is a self portrait. With this proliferation of small, easily accessible cameras, I have to ask:

Can a Photograph define a time? We'll look at one time specifically.

Question engagement: Can someone define photograph? The Oxford Dictionary of American English defines it this way: “A picture made using a camera, in which an image is focused onto film or other light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment.” This definition is perhaps a little dated because it alludes to silver compounds decomposing to metallic silver when exposed to light, with light sensitive salts held in an emulsion on transparent film. But that's all yesterday's chemistry.

Question engagement: Who is this man? Roy Stryker. What did he do? Believe it or not, you know this man, or at least you have seen the products of this man.

Question engagement: Who is this man? FDR.

The New Deal was a series of domestic programs enacted in the United States between 1933 and 1938. They involved laws passed by Congress as well as presidential executive orders during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The programs were in response to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians call the "3 Rs": Relief, Recovery, and Reform. That is Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to normal levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.

The Resettlement Administration (RA) was a New Deal U.S. federal agency that, between April 1935 and December 1936, relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government.

Question engagement: Who is this man? John Steinbeck.

Question engagement: Who is this woman? It shows Florence
Thompson embracing her children as she looks off into the distance. While Thompson was only in her 30s when the picture was taken, she looks haggard. Steinbeck would have known Miss Thompson, and if not by name, then at least by thousands of others who looked like her. Does anyone know who took this photograph? Dorothea Lange. Many of us have a very accurate idea of what the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl looked like because of photographers like Dorothea Lange.

Slide: This is my favorite, White Angel Breadline. Dorothea Lange came from San Francisco, which is where this photograph was taken: One Nation, Indivisible. What do we see here? School children. For many of us, we see nothing more than school children. What do you think about this: these are American children of Japanese decent and the year is 1942?
Question engagement: This brings up our point, Dorothea Lange, John Steinbeck and FDR. What's the common thread? This is a brief history lesson from a very brief time of history than none of us have any intimate knowledge. Steinbeck is the easy one here. He chronicled the Great Depression is The Grapes of Wrath in 1937. He gives us a great account of the Joad family and the migrant workers who flocked from Oklahoma to California. We know Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the 32nd president, 1933-1945. What did he and Dorothea Lange have in common?

Point #1: Return to Roy Stryker: The collection encompasses the approximately 77,000 images made by photographers working in Stryker's unit as it existed in a succession of government agencies: the Resettlement Administration (RA, 1935-37), the Farm Security Administration (FSA, 1937-42), and the Office of War Information (OWI, 1942-44). Under Roy Stryker's direction, twenty-two photographers captured images of Americans, American culture, and American landscape. 22 photographers documented the entire state of the country from 1935 to 1944. Dorothea Lange was only one. And for those of you who have ever taken a “selfie” here's one of Dorothea Lange.

First: Do you think the program was one of humanist or idealist purpose or was it propaganda?
Second: Would it be possible today for a group like this to be as influential as the FSA were?

Question engagement: Why do you suspect that this Information Division was assembled? What was the purpose? Can something like this exist today? If 22 photographers can make such an impact, is there something lost with the millions of camera phone users?

Question engagement: We've talked about FSA, Dorothea Lange, specifically, what about photographs or photojournalism that stick out in your mind. They don't have to be from this time. It's okay if your images are a little dated, after all, we've seen the death of the newspaper in recent years, the decline of the print medium... what images remain in your mind?

Here are some of mine:

What do you think about objectivity? Is the camera objective? Is a photographer objective? W. Eugene Smith was famous for his photo essays: Country Doctor and Albert Schweitzer. What do you think of this image? Who thinks this is an objective image? Obviously, we cannot, absolutely cannot look at this image and not feel something, notably distaste, anger, rage. We may try to rationalize this now by saying that that's just the way things were back then. W. Eugene Smith wasn't buying it. This is not an objective photographer. 1951 he gained trust with the KKK. HIS STATEMENT: Dear _______________ (an editor); P.S. In printing the photographs of the white-gowned Klan members I ran into considerable difficulty. There were several with uncovered faces and these faces were vividly dark in comparison to the white-white of the gowns that it was almost impossible to keep them from appearing black. I am terribly sorry.

Ask anyone from the baby-boomer generation or older where they were when... and they can tell you. Here is Dan Farrell's 1963 photograph of John Jr.

Bill Ander's 1968 Earthrise taken from the Apollo 8: "We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth"

Who can give me the definition of the word: hero? From her book Woe Is I, this is Patricia T. O'Conner definition of hero: There was a time when this word was reserved for people who were...well..heroic. People who performed great acts of bravery or valor, often facing danger, even death. But lately, hero has started losing its luster. We hear it applied indiscriminately to professional athletes, lottery winners and kids who clean up at spelling bees. There is no other word quite like hero, so let's not bestow it too freely. It would be a pity to lose it. Jeff Widener of the Associated Press took this one in June of 1989: Tank Man or the Unknown protester. Who is the hero in this photograph? In 1989, I thought it was the protester. If you know anything about this photograph, the driver of the tank was unable to run the protester down and drove around him. Today, I lean more to the thought that the tank driver is the hero. Interesting photo.
Jean-Claude Coutausse's A West-Berliner hitting the wall next to the Brandenburg Gate on November 10, 1989.

Taslima Akhter's A Final Embrace, Bangladesh in May of 2013. What do you notice about this photograph? What's the difference between this photo and all the others we've seen? This this is the only current photograph. What happened to photography between say, the fall of the Berlin wall, 1989, and this photograph? Digital photography. In this photograph, I notice the hair, the arm and the foreground clothe. I cannot help but think that this image has been altered somehow. What I say will not lessen the photo's impact, or how compelling it is. I wonder if someone didn't alter the subjects themselves, or perhaps enhanced the image digitally. It doesn't lessen the impact of it.

Question engagement: Who has Facebook? Instagram? Flickr? Here we have a great way to share photos, right? Everyone has a camera and now, a way to share them instantly and free of cost.

Group Activity: Contrast the FSA task force to the photo campaigns today: Instagram, Flickr, Facebook.

I'll leave you with an image I like.
Who is this man? David Bowie from the Heroes record cover, 1977.

Any questions? Well, I thank you for your time.
The Farm Security Administration (FSA), created in 1937 under the Department of Agriculture, helped with rural rehabilitation, farm loans, and subsistence homestead programs. The FSA was not a relief agency, but instead it relied on a network of cooperation between states and county offices to determine which clients needed loans that could not get this credit somewhere else. Farmers could use these loans to buy land, equipment, livestock, or seeds. Additionally, the FSA assisted families by providing healthcare, education, and training programs for participating families. The goal of these measures was to help families become self-sustaining.

The RA was the brainchild of Rexford G. Tugwell, an economics professor at Columbia University who became an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt during the latter's successful campaign for the presidency in 1932 and then held positions in the United States Department of Agriculture However, Tugwell's goal of moving 650,000 people from 100,000,000 acres (400,000 km2) of agriculturally exhausted, worn-out land was unpopular among the majority in Congress. This goal seemed socialistic to some and threatened to deprive influential farm owners of their tenant workforce. The RA was thus left with enough resources to relocate only a few thousand people from 9,000,000 acres (36,000 km2) and build several greenbelt cities, which planners admired as models for a cooperative future that never arrived.

Works cited: Digital Public Library of America Magnum Photos
W. Eugene Smith Masters of Photography. Aperture: New York, 1999.
W. Eugene Smith An Aperture Monograph. Aperture Foundation: New York, 1969.
Walker Evans, Photographs for the Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress, 1976.
Dorthea Lange. Phaidon: London, 2011.
Chase, Jarvis. The Best Camera is the One That's With You. New Riders: Berkeley, CA, 2010.  

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