Home Arts & Culture REVIEW: The Human Document – The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to the Present Day

REVIEW: The Human Document – The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to the Present Day

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‘The Human Document: the Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to the Present Day’ showing at the Mead Gallery, Warwick University until December 10th, is an exhibition of photography so large and so complex that the programme alone is as big as a medium-sized tabloid newspaper. A document of a document, as it were.

The bulk of the show consists of photographs from the harrowing Farm Security Administration (FSA) project of Depression-era United States, in which photographers were hired to ‘report and document the plight of impoverished farmers’. But as the exhibition’s title suggests, there is a wider remit. Displaying it alongside more recent work by artists such as Richard Billingham and Eileen Perrier opens up an exploration of the pivotal role played by the FSA archive in evolving attitudes towards the relationship between photographer, subjects and viewers.

As the programme explains, a major turning-point in this debate occurred in the 1950s and 60s, with the emergence of ‘a new generation’ of photographers who sought to challenge accepted beliefs that ‘the aim of documentary photography [was] to show what was wrong with the world, as a way to generate interest in rectifying it’. For these younger artists, working from a more personal perspective, the mission ‘[was] not to reform life, but to know it, not to persuade but to understand’.

Crucial to this change was a growing interrogation of the relationship between photographer and subject. So while the afterlife of what is perhaps the FSA collection’s best-known picture – a portrait of destitute pea-picker and mother-of-seven Florence Thompson – was marked by Mrs Thompson’s bitterness at what she came to see as the exploitation of her image, later photographers work collaboratively with their subjects to produce images that are a conscious synthesis of multiple points-of-view.

In Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, for instance, the unease the viewer may feel on being invited to observe the squalor of Ray and Liz’s lives is tempered by the realisation they are Billingham’s own parents. Eileen Perrier meanwhile, takes portraits in public places using her mobile phone. She defines collaboration as ‘a co-operation [between the subject and me] which takes place to allow the work to be created’. In its notes to her Mobile Portraits selection, the programme reflects on the rise of digital photography, and comments that ‘everybody is now a photographer; everybody a potential subject’.

Inevitably, the large size of the exhibition means that debate around these questions becomes rather diluted. This isn’t helped by the numerical imbalance between the FSA collection and the ‘others’ – giving the ‘others’ a slightly contingent, ‘tacked-on’ feel. On the other hand, there is opportunity to appreciate the photographs on many levels.

The FSA photographs, many of which were taken in Californian migrant camps, are both startlingly resonant with and curiously detached from present-day experience. Even in destitution, the society they depict continues to be organised along starkly gendered lines: the men in overalls, the women despite everything, defiantly clinging to their ragged cotton frocks.

Arguably, the short descriptions assigned to each picture by the photographer subtly persuade the viewer that it is the men who are most deserving of our sympathies. While women are routinely described in terms of fertility history – ‘mother of seven’, ‘grandmother of twenty-two’ – which is not under treat, men are defined in terms of employment (‘destitute sharecropper’, ‘unemployed agricultural worker’), putting their entire identity at risk. Only their despondent, uncomprehending expressions unite the two sexes. Many of the pictures radiate silence, as if the subjects are too exhausted and bewildered even to speak.

And the story of the FSA archive continues to evolve. Digitalisation of the collection by the Library of Congress combined with instant internet accessibility means that ‘any one of us can assume the role of artist, archivist or curator, reframing the FSA file to suit any given narrative – including the history of persuasive photography’. All of which only serves to raise an even larger question: if meaning is now decided entirely by individual decision – does ‘real meaning’ have meaning any more?

The Human Document: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day. Mead Gallery, Warwick University, until 10th December. Admission free.

Summary
The exhibition so large and so complex that the debate around the questions it raises becomes rather diluted. This isn’t helped by the numerical imbalance between the FSA collection and the ‘others’ - giving the ‘others’ a slightly contingent, ‘tacked-on’ feel. On the other hand, there is opportunity to appreciate the photographs on many levels.
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