I’ve been radically unsuccessful at anything resembling normal sleep for a couple of days now. I was supposed to be on the road to visit my parents, but I’ve ended up researching an idea. You see, in a few weeks I have to start writing a a book. I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do. The course is “extended topics in nonfiction” and the quantity of writing involved will be massive. I feel much better dealing with something I’m comfortable with. Photography was my first choice, but specifically, what?
I’ll use the blog to string it together first. I like the idea of doing it in public; it will be like having advance reviewers. The working title thus far is Imaginary Heroes: The Rhetoric of Representation in 1930s America. Rolls right off the tongue, eh? I began to think of this while reviewing significant documentary photography books published between 1937-1941. The list was small at first, but it’s been expanded a bit with a few books that I wasn’t aware of until now.
The first on my list was the last published, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. Big surprise, I’m sure. There are already tons studies of that book out there already. However, the context of those studies is mostly shallow and laudatory, in my opinion. It is one book among many. The first was You Have Seen Their Faces by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell. It was a best seller. Evans and Agee’s book sold 600 copies of its first printing. Fortunes change. Currently, Evans books in print probably outnumber Bourke-White books by five to one, though she published at least ten times as many books in her lifetime. Curious, no? The rise and fall of critical reception is fascinating. Bourke-White and Evans exhibited together in 1932, and they certainly were an odd couple, aesthetically. Then there’s the wildcard from the West Coast, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s An American Exodus, a distinctive book in its own right. And there’s another little known collaboration that had a huge impact. Horace Bristol and John Steinbeck originally planned to do a documentary book, but instead their trips into the San Joaquin Valley interviewing and photographing migrants became The Grapes of Wrath.
Additional research turned up Land of the Free by Archibald MacLeish (whose poetry was recently considered by Loren) and 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright. I haven’t seen those two yet, but I’m sure they’ll fit my plan. I’ve read about a three-inch stack of critical articles from proquest, and half of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road in the last few days, along with parts of a thick book on post-colonial theory. This will be fun. The objectification of the poor as the “other” living in the middle of the American dream during the depression speaks volumes to the construction of the national identity. It’s all rhetoric, Evans and Agee included.
Ultimately, each of these collaborations approached the problem of individual identity vs. the creation of “the public” in unique ways. Right now, I think most of the other works have been unfairly eclipsed by Evans and Agee. Popularity=bad seems to have done the most damage to Caldwell and Bourke-White, and I’ve discovered that Bristol went on to do some innovative experimental photo books while living in Japan that deserve at least a footnote in the story. Bristol was cheated most of all in the aftermath.
Obviously, there will be much more to come on these topics. But I had to spit something out before I lost the core ideas. What happened in the 30s is also deeply wrapped around romantic/pragmatic rhetoric, and I hope I can do sufficient research to bring the conflict to life.