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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

Storytellers from the Past

FSA Photographers — The Myth of Photographic Objectivity

Long before the age of Photoshop manipulations, I learned a valuable truth about the nebulousness of "photographic truth." If there even is such a thing, it is anything but universal truth.

Here is a short, oversimplied introduction to a bit of photographic history. In the 1930s, the US government established a bureaucracy known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) who employed an intelligent and zealous individual named Roy Stryker. Stryker knew the power the visual image to communicate, but even more than that he understood the power of the visual image to influence what was communicated. He was the head of a group of photographers — that he hired — for the purposes of "documenting" the tragedy of the dustbowl and the displacement of countless number of farmworkers. That project was done successfully through his efforts, and the nation and the world became better informed about the plight of these displaced people. It was a valuable project for public awareness, a project of inestimable value for historical documentation, but it is also a shining example of the problems with the concept of photographic truth.

I suppose that like almost all of us who become fascinated with photography, I immediately developed an admiration for the work of those great FSA photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and others. The question is: Are these photographs true? And this is precisely where my education about photographic truth meets the fork in the road.

Unquestionably all of these photographs are true in the sense that their content is not manipulated, in the Photoshop sense of the term. The things we see in all these great photographs actually happened. But is it the truth? More succinctly, is it the whole truth? So many of these great photographs must be admitted are, at best, a partial truth. They are all the function of editing — that is to say a process of selection. The FSA photographers are legendary in the volume of photographs they each made and contributed to the project. Clearly, not all of their photographs could be used in accomplishing the mission of the FSA. Stryker and his team carefully selected those images that best communicated the truth — and here's the rub — that they wanted to communicate. There's nothing wrong with this. Editorial intent is perfectly legitimate, but it does beg the question what is the purpose of the editorial slant? Stryker had a message he wanted to portray — not that it's of any consequence, but in his case it was a particularly socialist point of view. The images selected for publication and the stories that accompanied them were prepared to present his chosen point of view. That is to say, the editorial process in the FSA project was not to present, as they say in court, "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Instead, the truth depicted was the truth that Stryker (and his superiors) wanted to depict, even if that meant certain editorial decisions that might bend the truth in his chosen direction.

Fortunately, all the FSA photographs are part of the public archive and a number of researchers have spent considerable effort combing this entire body of work discovering some startling conclusions. In certain cases Stryker cropped images that implied a political point of view that was the opposite of the point of view one would have derived from the photograph if it had not been cropped. In the editing process, Stryker would consistently choose specific images out of a roll, or a dozen rolls, of film that most powerfully expressed his desired political message. Subsequent historians have examined the contact sheets in their entirety and realized just how manipulative such editing was, in a number of cases. I remember one example in which the photographer made numerous exposures of a group of black farmworkers surrounding a nicely dressed white man and his fancy car. The photograph that was widely published showed, from a very low angle, the white man with his foot on the fender of the car and the surrounding black men in a lower position. The white man was captured with an angry facial expression. The effect of the of the chosen photograph was one of white dominance over subjugated black farmworkers — a political message, indeed. Curiously enough, all of the images on the rest of this roll of film show a camaraderie between the white man and the black farmworkers, jovially laughing and having a good time. Only this one photograph includes such an overt political message — yet that is the one that Stryker chose to publish.

I hope this doesn't sound as though I'm criticizing Stryker for his editorial choices. I understand exactly what he was doing and why he felt it was important at the time. That is not the point I'm trying to make. Instead, the lesson I learned from this documentary project is that there simply is no such thing as photographic objectivity. Every photograph is the result of choices made by the photographer (composition and timing), processing (cropping and tonal representations), and editorial decisions (selection, sequencing, editorial intent). There is no such thing as photographic truth, but there is such a thing as photographic statement, photographic point of view, communicative intent, and editorial objectives.

The lesson from the FSA photographers that has guided my photographic life ever since is that my photographic work, like everyone else's, can only pretend to be neutral as it aspires to photographic objectivity. In fact, because there is no such thing as photographic objectivity, it seems perfectly pointless to pursue it. With that lesson firmly in hand, I was left with no other rational alternative than to accept the responsibility to use my photographic efforts to make statements that are at least true from my point of view, that are honest in that they are my point of view, and that I should try to make them as persuasive and convincing as I possibly can without the pretense of objectivity. Said another way, I decided that the production of art is unavoidably production of a personal expression.

There is a responsibility attendant with this, to wit, when photography is used responsibly, one should use it with the full knowledge of one's subjectivity. We have the responsibility to not knowingly mislead viewers about what is being expressed with our art. The FSA photographers taught me the importance of personal integrity about what we photograph, how we photographic it, what we try communicate with our photographs, and to do our best present our medium in a way that is both faithful to ourselves and honest to our viewers. You may very well disagree with something I've advocated in my artwork, but if I at least advocate it as simply being in my point of view rather than some eternal truth, if we disagree we can at least do so with mutual compassion and understanding. The minute we insist on photographic truth, completely denying the subjectivity of every bit of the process, photography easily descends to a weapon of propaganda and loses all ability to function as a tool for pursuing wisdom. I guess that is the condense lesson from the FSA photographers: That photography is a marvelous way to pursue truth but a misleading and seductive way of fooling people to an expression of objective truth. The idea that photographs are somehow truthful is an axiom that has been with us since the invention of photography. Perhaps now in the age of Photoshop here in photography's third century, we can finally get rid of that silly notion and embrace photography for the powerfully communicative medium that it is — truth, lies, fantasy, and fiction, just like language itself.