Chicago Daily News

Image of a wounded soldier making a toy tank at Fort Sheridan Hospital in Fort Sheridan, Illinois— 1919

Photographs from the Chicago Daily News 1909-1933 is a way cool site:

This collection comprises over 55,000 images of urban life captured on glass plate negatives between 1902 and 1933 by photographers employed by the Chicago Daily News, then one of Chicago’s leading newspapers. The photographs illustrate the enormous variety of topics and events covered in the newspaper, although only about twenty percent of the images in the collection were published in the newspaper. Most of the photographs were taken in Chicago, Illinois, or in nearby towns, parks, or athletic fields. In addition to many Chicagoans, the images include politicians, actors, and other prominent people who stopped in Chicago during their travels and individual athletes and sports teams who came to Chicago. Also included are photographs illustrating the operations of the Chicago Daily News itself and pictures taken on occasional out-of-town trips by the Daily News’s photographers to important events, such as the inauguration of presidents in Washington, D.C.

Puzzled America

Puzzled America

I read about half of Puzzled America (1935) by Sherwood Anderson today. It is an amazing bridge between 1919’s Winesburg Ohio and 1940’s Home Town. Several commentators I’ve read see Home Town as a sellout of sorts— a caving in to collectivism when Anderson had previously celebrated individualism and eccentricity in Winesburg Ohio. The book is an early example of “creative nonfiction,” and it bridges the conceptual gap. In the short personal oral histories in the book, Anderson clearly relates the changing face of America in the 1930s. In the story called “TVA” Anderson celebrates power:

There is wealth in the land which these people have tried to live. It is a new kind of wealth, the wealth of modern man, of the modern world. It is wealth in the form of energy.

Power— the coinage of the modern world!

There is plenty of power— the private companies have only got a little of it so far— flowing silently away, along the Tennessee, along the rivers that come down out of the hills to make the Tennessee.

Long ago, I’m told, army engineers went through these hills. They drew up a kind of plan, having in mind the use of all this wasted power in case of war, power to be harnessed, to make munitions, to kill men.

There came a World War and the building of the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals. That is where the Tennessee, in its wanderings, dips down into northern Alabama, thrusts down into the land of cotton. It is something to be seen. All good Americans should go and see it. If the Russians had it there would be parades, special editions of illustrated magazines got out and distributed by the government.

There it is, however, completely magnificent. You go down, by elevator, some ten stories, under the earth, under the roaring river, and walk out into great light clean rooms. There is a song, the song of great motors. You are stirred. Something in you— the mechanically minded American in you begins to sing. Everything is so huge, so suggestive of power and at the same time so delicate. You walk about muttering.

“No wonder the Russians wanted our engineers, “ you say to yourself.

The great motors sing on, each motor as large as a city room. There is a proud kind of rebirth of Americanism in you.

“Some of our boys did this,” you say to yourself, throwing out your chest. (58-9)

I find the narrative strategy here— placing the reader in the scene— to be quite interesting. But there is the note of caution, as the world gears up for another World War that this power is meant to produce bullets to kill people. That’s a nice touch— it plays on the patriotic sentiment while sliding in through the back door a note that this power was not initially designed to be beneficent. It says something about America, while it clubs you with patriotism.

The real shift in Anderson’s attitude about American individualism shines through in a subsequent story, “Tough Babes in the Woods.” In a conversation with one of the hill people, Anderson relates the contradiction between industry and individualism:

“This is off the record. Some may think I am a Socialist or a Bolshevik.”

Men’s minds pushing, somewhat timidly, into a new social view of physical America. How are they to tell the story to that lean mountain man? Let us say that he owns his few poor hillside acres. Who is to tell him, “Thou shalt not?”? The right to go on plowing, where plowing is sheer land destruction— the traditional right of the American individualist, big or little.

“It’s mine.”

“It’s mine.” (73)


Walker Evans, Hale County Alabama, 1936

Aristotle on Captioning

I was reading Aristotle’s Topics, and was struck by his puzzling over the correct use of phrases:

Sometimes a phrase is used neither homonymously, nor yet metaphorically, nor yet literally, as when the law is said to be the measure or image of things that are by nature just. Such phrases are worse than metaphor; for metaphor does make what it signifies to some extent familiar because of the likeness involved (for those who use metaphor do so always in view of some likeness), whereas this kind of thing makes nothing familiar, (for there is no likeness in virtue of which the law is a measure or image nor is the law ordinarily so called). So then, if a man says that the law is literally a measure or an image, he speaks falsely; for an image is something produced by imitation, and this is not found in the case of the law. If on the other hand, he does not mean the term literally, it is clear that he has used an obscure expression and one that is worse than any sort of metaphorical expression.

Moreover, see if from the expression used the account of the contrary is not clear; for definitions that have been correctly rendered also indicate their contraries as well. Or, again, see if, when it is merely stated by itself, it is not evident what it defines— just as in the works of old painters, unless there were an inscription, the figures used be unrecognizable.

The core values of Aristotle’s conception of metaphor are conflicted— as Paul Ricoeur has noted— he uses a model of metaphor as resemblance in Poetics and here, in Topics, but is not nearly so stringent about it in Rhetoric. But it is interesting to me that he invest a great deal in the power of a caption to clarify an image. I think the confusion reflected in this passage plays itself out well in the development of documentary photography in the 1930s.

Aristotle is concerned about obscure expression— is a picture without a caption more confusing? Not if it is metaphoric or literal— if its reference is clearly one or the other, then it seems unnecessary. But what if the usage isn’t so clear? It seems that according to Aristotle, without the caption there is no way to interpret the image.

I am reminded of the two extremes of the photographic books I’m considering— Doris Ulman’s 1933 collaboration with Julia Peterkin, Roll Jordan, Roll uses no captions; neither does Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The strange thing is that Ulman’s photographs are meant to be clearly metaphoric— whereas Evans work is neither literal or metaphoric. Evan’s photographs fall into the strange zone that Aristotle is writing about here. Are his photographs obscure because of this? I think that is a point to ponder.

The cause for Evans’ avoidance of captioning was to avoid the rhetorical posturing in the interim works. However, what is the cost? Is it obscurity?

I’ll Take My Stand (1)

I’ll Take My Stand

The opening “Statement of Principles” by the group of twelve Southern writers brought together in I’ll Take My Stand, first printed in 1930 in limited quantity, bears close scrutiny by anyone interested in the argument over the role of the humanities in education. While it takes as its organizing trope the conflict of “Agrarian versus Industrial” it is easily recast into a modern frame by considering it in the light of the continuing debate over traditional versus vocational education. However, the rhetoric is easily pigeonholed as region-specific or time-specific. The resistance to industry reflected in these historic essays draws deeply at the well of the humanities, and the introduction seems incredibly cognizant of the wider implications— the book breaks the bounds of an anachronistic luddite artifact of a culture long since passed. Indeed, it seems prudent to examine the definition of “Industrialism” offered here:

Industrialism is the economic organization of the collective American society. It means the decision of society to invest its economic resources in the applied sciences. (x)

If the book is a battle cry against this movement in America, then like the first civil war, the South surely lost. However, the introduction speaks to an anxiety which in its own way anticipates deconstruction:

The word science has acquired a certain sanctitude. It is out of order to quarrel with science in the abstract, or even with the applied sciences when their applications are made subject to criticism and intelligence. The capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome. The apologists of industrialism do not like to meet this charge directly; so they often take refuge in saying that they are devoted simply to science! They are really devoted to the applied sciences and to practical production. Therefore, it is necessary to employ a certain skepticism even at the expense of the Cult of Science, and to say, it is an Americanism, which look innocent and disinterested, but really is not either. (x-xi)

Curious distinctions are at work here— first, the identification of a schism between abstract and applied science. This is still true. Funding for pure research is hard to come by. It’s the economic focus that defines America— so by definition “science” in a real sense is hardly disinterested or innocent. Though carpal-tunnel is more of a threat in most modern professions than black lung, nothing much has been changed when it comes to the “burdensome” nature of applied science. The Southern answer to the problem of casting off that burden is leisure, and I must say I like that answer. The penalty of the endless work/leisure explosion is proposed as a two-edged sword:

Turning to consumption, as the grand end which justifies the evil of modern labor, we find that we have been deceived. We have more time in which to consume, and many more products to be consumed. But the tempo of our labors communicates itself to our satisfactions, and these also become brutal and hurried. The constitution of the natural man probably does not permit him to shorten his labor-time and enlarge his consuming-time indefinitely. He has to pay the penalty in satiety and aimlessness. The modern man has lost his sense of vocation. (xlii)

I can’t help but think of the way that the tempo of vocational education has entered into the humanities— hundred year spans are taught with a few choice predigested words which support the current critical trends, and there is precious little time for reflection. The best of teachers though do take the time to attempt the expression of the soul of literature and history— that yesterday indeed has and does invest itself in today. But I had to put myself under the magnifying glass when it comes to my own consumptive patterns.

I am a voracious consumer— not of status symbols, modern conveniences, etc., but of information. In the consumption of information, there is no satiety or aimlessness. The consumption of information is indeed a vocation. I find myself far more drawn to that than agrarian pursuits. The current trend in reading I’ll Take My Stand is to read it as metaphoric. I think this is a good thing; the appeal to tradition that it represents is heartfelt and erroneous. But the appeal for a critical appraisal of technology in light of what it displaces is important, even today in an information rather than commodity driven economy.

More to come, I’m sure.

Pare Lorentz

Government Issue

I finally got to see a couple of films I’ve been reading about for years: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River by Pare Lorentz. I’m not sure what I think just yet. Maybe it’s my dislike for modern poetry, but I just didn’t find them as poetic as they’re cracked up to be. Visually, they are outstanding for the time. Verbally, they sort of grated on me— of course, the critics call them “Joycean.”

Maybe it was just the deadpan tone— sort of like watching one of those Prelinger Archive training films. However, the content was different. Not quite propaganda but certainly not objective, the first US Government funded documentary films are fascinating. I ordered them from a site called, which connected me directly with a company that consumptive (I think) linked to a few days later . . . . strange how all this works. But then I’m wandering.

I miss that. Wandering, that is. I’ve been feeling far too focused and industrious lately, rather than just rambling on with blog entries. Maybe it’s getting into the time-line phase with my research site that took it out of me. There’s so much I want to get down. But for now, I should stick to the topic at hand.

The Plow that Broke the Plains was my favorite of the films. It uses some pretty innovative montage techniques to contextualize the agrarian vs. industrial debate of the time. It reminded me of someone else I need to know more about— Ralph Steiner, who did the camera work. He was the man who trained Walker Evans in using the view camera too, by the way. The River was disappointing to me, but as I read through I’ll Take My Stand I can see how much it dealt with the problem of the south in relatively sympathetic fashion. The preface of the collection of Southern essays sets the opposition firmly: “Agrarian versus Industrial”

It amazes me how much these polemics miss the real point at stake— there is nothing inherently evil about technology. However, there are dehumanizing aspects to any technological growth which need to be highlighted and addressed. The controversy still rages today. I love to side with the humanists— but it is never an either or choice that must be made. Being a Luddite is no answer at all. The real problem is sucessfully integrating tools into our mode of living without losing something essential in the simpler mode that preceded it.

But even as I write that I wonder about the mythic “simplicity” of life close to the land. I personally find indoor plumbing to be much “simpler” than dealing with outhouse maintenance. Cooking with wood fires also seems to be much more complex. Maybe it’s just that the change from one mode to the other decenters us to the point where we always take the previous version as being simpler, when in reality it is not.

I’ll have to give Pare Lorentz credit for the slant of his films— he does not avoid the truly complex nature of the changes that the USA was dealing with in the 1930s. They are not monolithic pieces of cultural propaganda. His films are quite complex, and deserve much more than the scant words I’ve generated about them here. I suppose I should think about it longer, but damn it I miss writing!

Georgia Nigger

Title page, Georgia Nigger by John Spivak— 1932

One of the neglected figures I’m starting to look into now is John Spivak, a reporter who “broke” the story of the abuses of Southern chain-gangs in the 1930s. I had never heard of him, but thanks to William Stott’s excellent treatment of him in Documentary Expression and Thirties America I felt like I needed to track down a copy of Georgia Nigger. This entry presents all the photographs used in the book, and some notes about the rhetorical perspective. The book opens with a postscript:

To have placed the scene of action of “Georgia Nigger” in some specific county would manifestly been unfair since it would have singled out for national opprobrium when it is no worse than many others in the state or other southern states; and to have presented a collection of factual, individual cases would have centered attention upon them and have left the many thousands of others as unknown as before.

Excellent studies in this field have been published by sociologists and penologists but they are too little known. I thought it wise to tell the story of David’s efforts to escape from a monstrous system, in the guise of fiction. But though all characters in Georgia Nigger are fictitious some of the scenes described are so utterly incredible that I feel an appendix of pictures and documents are necessary in this particular work. The pictures I took personally in various camps and the documents are but a few of the many gathering dust in the State Capitol in Atlanta.

Georgia does not stand alone as a state lost to fundamental justice and humanity. It was chosen because it is fairly representative of the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama— the whole far-flung Black Belt. Nor is the whole south as pictured here. There are many counties where conditions are infinitely better, and too many counties where they are infinitely worse.

I do not believe that the overwhelming proportion of intelligent and humane citizens of the south approves these conditions. In those representative southerners, white and black, with whom I discussed my investigations and showed the pictures and documents, I found a sense of startled horror and a desire to end these things.

To those who are vaguely familiar with the lives in Georgia Nigger from the shocking cases which reach the press from time to time, and who may think I deliberately chose sensational and extreme instances for David to see and hear and pass through, I make assurances that I have earnestly avoided that, not only because it would not have been a representative picture but because the extreme cases are unbelievable.

To those, colored and white, who helped me with introductions that opened up the doors of planter and sharecropper, peon and convict camp stockade, much gratitude is due.

The documentation in Spivak’s book is largely textual— state documents, many of which that describe the sort of abuses heaped upon prisoners as a matter of public record. Spivak presents them in the appendix, which opens with the letter which gave him entry to the prison system. Caution, the extended page displaying the photographs will load slowly because I wanted to present them at a size that was readable.

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Year’s End

Year’s End

I was looking back through my archived material and realized that I haven’t been able to clearly explain just what I’ve been working on since August. I’ve posted a lot of sketches which probably only succeeded in confusing people further. What’s been missing, for the people who only see this stuff on my weblog, is the constant explaining/defining that goes on as I move it toward the proposal stage at school.

I’ve sketched several introductions, and submitted one proposal that resulted in around thirty pages of text— all about the eighteenth century. I wanted to try to explain why I think it’s important as the year closes, as much for myself as for anyone else. It surprises me that I’ve only been researching it for five months. It seems much longer than that, mostly because I now have several feet of shelf-space dedicated to this material.

So forgive me if you’ve read some of this before, but I want to try and write it as concisely as I can to remind myself as I get lost in the myriad of tangents.

The research project began while I was writing a series of blog posts about Walker Evans. Researching Evans, it began to blow me away just how many miles of text had been generated about him. Of course, I’d collected a foot or so of material on him over the years, because he was one of my early heroes as a photographer. Evans disdained politics— and the art world. I empathized with that deeply. It seemed to me that Evans wanted to take pictures that were somehow free of the taint of both. Most of my knowledge of Evans came from a time long before I’d studied language philosophy or rhetoric. Now, his views (and my own for most of my career as a photographer) seem hopelessly naive.

As I bought more books on Evans and tracked down articles it seemed like anything that could possibly be said about Evans had been said— with only one minor hole— the literary influences. So I dug into Hart Crane and others, not so much because I imagined that I could do anything in the way of a thesis in Rhetoric about it, but because I just wanted to know more. As I explored the milieu Evans moved through in the thirties, I noticed a huge disparity in the sheer volume of words generated about him and his collaborator James Agee and all the rest— the difference is at least a hundred to one. It was understandable at first— I wasn’t alone in considering these men to be the “heroes” of documentary photography.

I remember how much Let Us Now Praise Famous Men changed my life. It wasn’t just Evans’ incredible photographs. It was Agee’s heartfelt text. When I moved to Arkansas around six years ago, I remember loaning my copy to a local poet. He gave it back with a note— “thanks for giving me the chance to deconstruct this crappy prose.” Recently, I’ve run across several references to Evan’s feeling that many parts of Agee’s text were “embarrassing.” None of this has shifted my admiration of the textual portion of the book— it’s naked, and raw, and not really about the supposed subject Evan’s photographs were meant to document. Agee’s text is really about the sheer futility of documentary, and about the self-deconstructing nature of valediction. Agee’s worst nightmares have come true— his text is neatly ensconced on the bookshelf of classics.

It’s easy to chalk up differences of opinion on Agee’s text as a matter of taste. The sheer density of critical writing about it, and the tension it provides for Evans’ photographs seems to assure that the book rests comfortably in a sort of cultural aporia, free from the Marxist dissection of the proletarian and nationalist rhetoric that was all the rage during the 1930s. Most of the commentaries on other works from this period are scathing and derogatory. I really started to wonder why. Why are Evans and Agee universally hailed as heroes? Just what is a damn hero anyway?

I was reading Aphra Behn, and was impressed by her plea to the audience in the preface to The Lucky Chance that she wanted to be a hero in 1686. William Blake, who I have spent many years studying, was intensely concerned with the overthrow of classic models of heroism. Perhaps our present concept of heroes was developed in the eighteenth century? As I started to fill in some gaps in my literature education (Fielding, Defoe, Swift) it seemed clear that heroic consciousness was dealt with in a nearly obsessive fashion— and the peak of the New Deal in the 1930s brought with it a new sort of proletarian heroe, where rather than favoring the individual as hero we want to erect effigies to whole groups— unknown soldiers, firemen, you name it— as if to be a hero in the classic sense was anathema.

Another tangent loomed as I stepped into Emerson and Carlyle’s concept of the “representative man”— I need to deal with the formative years in the American national identity in the early nineteenth century. I spent at least three months on the eighteenth century, and never really finished. I’ve spent a lot of time just gathering material too, as more and more texts from the 1930s come to light. This is big, and far too unmanageable for a master’s thesis. But now I have the lay of the land. If I want to explore heroic rhetoric, I really know where to look now.

But why? Because as I uncovered those other texts, I found many of them to be innovative, and deeply influential even though no one seems to be writing about them much. It’s as if there is only one channel of input into considerations of documentary pursuits— the heroic artistic outsider exemplified by Evans. Only Evans defied the “government stooge” represented by Roy Stryker, head of the FSA. Though a growing amount of material is being generated which heroizes the “file” of 100,000+ pictures now in the public domain generated by the FSA. I’m torn now about what I want to do. On one level, I want to deal with the photographers and writers lost in the torrent of texts about Evans and Agee. On the other, I do want to deal with the nature of the FSA file.

The FSA was the first and last government funded “commons” where creative materials were made open and accessible to the public, free of copyright. Recent research I’ve been doing has highlighted the “unmediated” nature of Franklin Roosevelt’s access to American public opinion through his fireside chats— the parallels with contemporary issues on the Internet are fascinating.

And then, there is the theory behind the concept of heroism. I do believe that heroism is not synonymous with “power” in the Foucaultian sense, or “cultural capital” a la Bourdieu— I think there are other forces at work, completely outside these concepts. The persistence of “heroism” is not addressed very well by other theories. Barbara Kruger (or Tina Turner, if you prefer) can proclaim all day long that “we don’t need another hero,” but as Thomas Carlyle argued in the early nineteenth century, apparently we do. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many books, films, and pictures made about it.

So that’s where the year ends for me— deep in the middle of all this, trying to figure out which piece to chisel off for a Master’s thesis. That’s where my “work” these days is. I keep sailing along this titanic central idea, brushing against icebergs that regularly rip open my sides and cause me to sink into yet another round of research.


Dorothea Lange, Hoe Cutter, near Anniston, Alabama, 1936


This photograph appears early in An American Exodus, cropped closer and printed in a really dark and grimy way. It is captioned in its earlier form as “Hoe Culture, Alabama 1937.” I begin to wonder about any possible connection with a poem by another San Francisco resident from 37 years before:

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