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Friday, June 26, 2015

June 26, 2015: Gordon Parks and America: Portrait Photos and the Past



[Earlier this year, I had the chance to visit an amazing photography exhibition at Boston’s Musuem of Fine Arts: Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. In this series, I’ll use that exhibition as a starting point for highlighting some of the many ways Parks’s career and life illuminate late 20th century American history and culture. Add your thoughts, whether you’ve seen the exhibition or not, in comments!]
On what the cultural form can’t quite reveal to us, and what it can.
First, I can’t end a series AmericanStudying a photographer without highlighting the ground-breaking work done by my friend, mentor, and former dissertation advisor Miles Orvell. From his seminal American Photography (2003), the definite scholarly overview and analysis of the subject, to his edited John’s Vachon’s America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War 2 (2003), Orvell has consistently been at the forefront of studying American photography and photographers. Vachon worked for Roy Stryker’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) alongside Gordon Parks, and I imagine the two must have had some interesting encounters or conversations that could shed light on the history of American photography and culture in the 20th century. But if we can’t get back to those conversations, Orvell’s work is certainly a good proxy.
Much of the time, we seem to assume that photographic portraits offer us precisely such glimpses into the past. But while of course they literally capture a piece of the past (“This is what Abraham Lincoln looked like,” and so on), I would argue that it has tended to be at best a distorted lens. After all, portrait photos are staged, artificially posed and constructed images of people that reflect some combination of the photographer’s instructions and the subject’s self-conscious self-image far more than whatever complex identity and personality might have existed there. That was even more true for the most historical of the photographs we have, where the posing and staging often took an extended period of time and no doubt resulted in drastically different images of the subjects than whatever they would have looked like in instantaneous shots. Which is to say, historical portrait photos seem to tell us far more about the process of photography and what it meant to those experiencing it than it does about those subjects themselves.
And yet. If I come back to the Gordon Parks Fort Scott photos in the MFA exhibition with which I began this week’s series, I have to admit that: a) they do seem most definitely constructed, driven by both Parks’s own artistic vision and the self-images and goals of his subjects; and yet b) both of those elements are incredibly interesting and compelling, and reveal a great deal about both Parks and his subjects. Perhaps we can’t learn about what these people or their world might have been like in their most casual or unguarded moments, necessarily; of course we can’t even assume that we know such details about most of those around us in our own moment, other than perhaps our closest friends or loved ones. So in learning about the self-conscious, performed identities of these portrait subjects, just like in seeing products of the artistic vision of their photographer, what we are able to engage with is images of their social selves, their relationships to other people and to their communities (small and big, specific and broad). That’s a pretty valuable part of history to have access to after all, I’d say.     
June Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

2 comments:

  1. Hi Ben - thanks for calling my attention to this exhibit, and your ruminations on portrait photography; as a history teacher and amateur photographer I always try to do this kind of analysis with students, beginning with 'why don't people in old photos ever smile?' to discussions of dress, pose, class, race, identity. Civil War battlefield photos are especially useful here to examine what the photographer sees and chooses to show: toy guns to make a scene more realistic, posed bodies, regimental photos that reveal all sorts of social divisions and patterns.

    Often times students are shocked by the degree to which photographers influenced the scenes around them; modern photography, especially in the age of the cell phone camera, seems more documentary than perhaps it should. Your thoughts on the 'constructed' nature of Parks' work are a nice counterpoint to this. Photographers choose their subjects for a reason, and it's a corollary that they also choose what not to include. That makes every photograph constructed reality in a key way. Photography, like any historical source, is a subjective document and has to be analyzed as such in order to really understand the context.

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  2. Thanks very much for these thoughts, Andrew! Sounds like your students are getting a really strong, layered approach to these sources and what they offer (and hide, or at least construct). I hope you get a chance to see the exhibit!

    Thanks,
    Ben

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