My first edition of An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor arrived today. I didn’t really need to splurge on this book, but I did. All the copies available in the continental US were $500 plus, but I got a copy from Ireland for $100. The modern version is virtually identical, but there is something about the smell, the yellowness that makes me feel closer to it. The end papers are filled with words from the people photographed, and the scale is jarring compared to the miniaturized version used in the modern copy.
I was reading the fine print, and noticed that Horace Bristol contributed a photograph to it. But more than that, I was struck by the concern over just what this sort of book was supposed to be. I posted my bibliographic essay on the Rosskams here just now, and Rosskam’s thoughts on the subject are still fresh in my mind. Both Lange and Rosskam wanted to sketch out a new category, a sort of none of the above, regarding their integrations of photo and text. This is how Lange and Taylor put it:
This is neither a book of photographs nor an illustrated book, in the traditional sense. Its particular form is the result of our use of techniques in proportions and relations designed to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly. We use the camera as a tool of research. Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field. We adhere to the standards of documentary photography as we have conceived them. Quotations which accompany the photographs report what the person said, not what we think might be their unspoken thoughts. Where there are no people, and no other source is indicated, the quotation comes from people we met in the field.
We show you what is happening in selected regions of limited area. Something is lost by this method, for it fails to show fully the wide extent and the many variations of rural changes which we describe. But we believe that the gain in sharpness of focus reveals better the nature of the changes themselves.
The ripples of You Have Seen Their Faces by Bourke-White and Caldwell are all over this book. There are multiple definitions of intent at work, from 1937 forward, and all these definitions of documentary photography are inherently rhetorical. Though Walker Evans’s photographs are usually taken to be the most “objective” they clearly are not. They are a highly subjective aesthetic reaction, combined with a ravingly subjective text questioning the very existence of objectivity. This compares directly to the “scientific” approach of Lange and Taylor, who realize however carefully they pursue their observations, they cannot contain the entirety of the changes in progress. Rosskam alone used multiple strategies, for multiple opinions, “to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly.” Rosskam’s incredible flexibility obsesses me.