Letters from Home

Bound for Glory: America in Colour 1939-1943

Boys fishing in a bayou, by Marion Post Wolcott, June, 1940
Where: Photographer’s Gallery, 5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7HY
When: Through 28 January 2007
How Much: Free

In my mind’s eye, The grapes of wrath are not purple or red or green. They are always charcoal grey.

I must have imagined that the days before color television the whole world was an absence of color. I thought Dorothea Lange was working in the palatte of the Industrial age. Cars were black. Movies were black and white. Even the history I learned about that time had two shades. Like the people too.

Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga., by Jack Plano
Michele and I went into the Photographer’s Gallery just talking about our colorful Christmas holidays with our family. The usual crises of life: fathers and uncles and cousins dying; sisters arguing; friends bashing it out and mothers and daughters sighing over each other.

That is what was on my mind, looking at these photos. They were commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) — just as Dorothea Lange’s iconic black and white images were — to garner support for Roosevelt’s New Deal.

From 1939 on, all the photos were taken with a new cutting edge technology: Kodachrome colour film. They were taken,says the curators, “to show the improvements the New Deal had made, whilst acknowledging that there was still work to be done.”

The curator uses the words “immediate” and “fresh” for the way the colour strikes you when you see it. But it is more than that. Looking at the history of my home country in such perfect color, with faces so familiar, it isn’t fresh at all: it is like looking at an adverstisement. It is modern and weird.

The clothes (four sisters wearing dresses cut from the same piece of fabric) and the set pieces (cars, old farm equipment, mule-pulled wagons, silos, juke joints) look so perfectly unreal, as if staged. The boys fishing with cane rods… it is almost as if they are being iconified. It is hard to believe that these are real boys at all, and that they might still be alive, and still be living in the wealthiest country in the world, in poverty. Maybe even ignored and left to die on rooftop after a hurricane.

Mrs. Viola Sievers, one of the wipers at the roundhouse giving a giant

I am not sure what the title of this show wants to glorify, most especially as it is staged in the UK, a country that currently loves to despise American values and politics more and more.

Is the glory in for the individual art? If so, these photos are only marginally interesting as photographs. That they were taken in color signifies a striking intersection of art and history perhaps, but this should not give greater value to the art itself.

Is it for Roy Stryker, who ran the Information Department of the Farm Security Administration and who hired the FSA photographers. Is his idea to record the time in photographs seen as any more visionary in this show as it had been in other photographic exhibits of the era? What is his value as the original curator of the Great Depression?

I wonder, maybe, if the “glory” isn’t a this show curator’s longing for a bygone time when film photography was still untouched by computer media and digital imaging systems. Still the prints in the show are slide film printed digitally. Photography is a stolen and changing art, and the poor and the downtrodden are always an easy subjects. It isn’t a particularly surprising or challenging show to take on.

I am not saying these photos should have been left in the Library of Congress archive. They are beautiful and true to life. But it chills me a bit to see them on the walls of an international gallery under the titled “America in Colour.” Because somehow it feels as if the curators want to say “This is the truth of America,” as if they have any idea.

I can tell you, we all have our own truth. But own thing I do know: there is no glory in poverty.

Additional information:
The Photographer’s Gallery
“Bound for Glory on AOL Pictures
Buy the Book: Bound for Glory

One thought on “Bound for Glory: America in Colour 1939-1943

  1. I understand the title of the exhibition was chosen by the Library of Congress rather than the gallery itself. I assume “Bound for Glory” is a reference to Woody Guthrie’s autobiography of the same title.

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