Introduction Attempt #1

Introduction Attempt #1

There is a constant impulse through human history which manufactures heroes. Fallible and complex human beings are compressed into icons, and the compression generates light without heat. Histories are written with people at the center, as well they should be— because humans do not want their history to be a dry as dust recitation of facts, but passionate lives lived by passionate people. But there is an irresolvable antimony in this. When the stars are placed distantly in the sky, we lose the matrix of events which created them, and guided their relations with society. Though the light of individuals guides society, it is society which create individuals. Individuals ascend to heroic status solely through socially accepted rhetoric. Heroism cannot be objectively verified, and is subject to change as standards of evidence shift over time. Tropes establishing heroism subtly change.

Appearances matter. From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, sumptuary laws were enacted to control how people dressed to preserve the class structure. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, portrait painting descended from the airy lands of Kings and kingdoms down to the middle classes, where the preservation of an image acted to elevate the sitter into a higher social realm. The transition from monarchy to democracy brought with it new image making strategies to fit the new social order, and the core assumption that the fixing of an image made the subject heroic and luminary is an intrinsic part of the imaging process. “Image is everything,” the modern advertising slogan says, and this is hardly news. The preference for image over messy substance seems constant over history. As history as moved toward more socialized democratic practice, the rhetoric of image has changed. However, the many still gravitate towards images of the few.

There is a pattern to history that is lost when single threads are examined too closely, or sewn into garments that fit poorly. However, some consolidation is necessary to create a narrative yarn. The threads which feed into the fabric of American imaging practice are not tidy, and some generalities must be assumed. Landscape is a peculiarly modern concern. The rise of landscape imaging is also coincident with new modes of imaging people. New types of heroes emerged against the backdrop of the American landscape. Sociality was a necessity for survival of immigrants entering in the new world, so the tenuous balance between self interest and the greater good was, and is, always under negotiation. The confluence of print, image, and rhetorical practice as a force for sociality reached a peak in the mid-twentieth century America. Any theory which seeks to contain this golden age of documentary practice must account not only for one yarn— or one hero— but for many in the American social landscape.

One yarn is economic. A nation must find a way to pay its debts and survive. Another is social— to forge a national identity, to some degree the people must cohere to a value system. Of course, there is also the yarn of shifting aesthetic values. Questions of beauty and pleasure always surround imaging practice, whether in words or visual form. People long for entertainment. And then there is always the technical yarn of progress. Without the means to achieve an idea, the impulse remains unsatisfied. Drawing from a fractured set of genres slowly under development through the nineteenth century, the photographic books of 1937-41 draw all these yarns together in a crochet patchwork of knots, full of holes that have been amply explored by modern historians. It is the fabric, not the holes, which interests me. I feel this confluence of genres has not been studied in its full glory, nor has the rhetorical impact on the creation of a national identity been examined adequately.

I do not seek to exhaustively explore the individual heroes involved, but rather the two conflicting models of heroes which emerged from the dark hours of a nation. In some ways, the rhetoric both inside and outside the Farm Security Administration’s depiction of the Great Depression was a comforter meant to warm the heart of a nation. It was tied together by artists and writers that had little in common, except the rhetorical device of works combining images and text in ways beyond the sum of the parts that fed them. Modern American rhetoric and our concept of heroes rests on a base built from conflicting tropes which deny convenient resolution. A comforter need not fit everyone to generate warmth. I feel the fabric is more important than the holes.