Just some tentative notes on where I’m going: exploration of Riis and Hine leads me to think that there were many genre threads involved in the weaving of the social documentary books of 1930s America. Though I thought it easiest to start with Riis, it becomes clear that I’ve got to go even further back, at least in glancing reference. Many genres came together in the 1930s: travel photography, ethnography, advertising, photography as “art” and urban planning. There are precedents for all these from the 1840s forward, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in it. But the rhetoric involved is unique in each genre.
Aside to Jonathon: Evans and Agee’s book was a reaction against much of this. But Let Us Now Praise Famous Men— its impact, its honest virtues and its delusional qualities can only be discussed adequately in light of all the competing aesthetics present at the time. Understanding the differing impulses which drove each book makes forgiving their excesses easier. None of the books I’m considering were simply exploitive; each one had a unique place as a frozen moment in American rhetoric. Each book from the 30s offers a different interpretation of what a “hero” is. It is easy from a high cultural vantage point to lionize Evans, and in some ways demonize those who were perhaps closer to the suffering of America in the depression. There’s been a lot of revisionist history going on. That’s almost a subject for it’s own book. I am becoming fascinated with the changes after the fact to many of these books. Evans, for example, doubled the number of photographs in the 1960 edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, adding photographs of blacks and locales outside the context of the book. In 1960, it was safer and easier to do that. The dynamics of the rhetoric involved is just fascinating. The division between rhetoric and poetics is an Aristotelian fantasy.
All of the pieces of the puzzle are interconnected in strange ways. That’s why I think that blogging is the easiest way to find a suitable arrangement. Hyperlinking is wonderful that way, in terms of discovering what flow patterns work and what patterns don’t. The first attempt at making sense of the connections between Jacob Riis and Erskine Caldwell is in the previous entry. Of course, along the way I thought of other connections. I’m going to try to create self-contained fragments here, and organize them more coherently later. Each theme connects with all the others. Soon, a new blog category to tie things together will be created, but here’s 1600 words to start.