12/15/2011 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can An Image Authentically Represent An Era?

This is the seventh in an occasional series examining the recession's impact on culture, The Recessionary Arts. Read more from the series here.

Of the approximately 250,000 images taken during the Farm Security Administration's photography program documenting the Great Depression, one has stayed lodged in our collective memory as synonymous with the Depression -- the migrant mother with a hardened look and pair of children burrowing their little faces into her shoulders.

"The designation of an image is a kind of visual shorthand, the equivalent of a 'keyword,'" said Martha Rosler -- a New York-based artist and author of "In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)" -- of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother." "Iconic photographs have loaded upon them the entire presumed meaning of an era. Such an image can be useful as a starting point, but except in seasons of crisis it does not contribute much to understanding."

This is the sort of ethical consideration that has surfaced since the FSA program: whether allowing the aesthetics of suffering to define the subject of the photo -- and the larger era it stands in for -- is manipulative. The theory on documentary photography has widened since the days of the FSA to the point where these sorts of questions rose to great importance, dulled from one too many rehashings, and are now a source of exasperation for some photographers.

These concerns crop up in an ongoing photographic exhibit, "More American Photographs," which attempts to do for the recession what the FSA did for the Depression. There's enough diversity among the photographic styles featured in the exhibit to realize that an authentic view of the recession, or any period, is framed not only by the photograph, but also by each photographer's theoretical approach.

The FSA series, lasting from 1935 to 1944, was the inspiration for this traveling exhibit, curated by Jens Hoffmann and Jana Blankenship, currently on display at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco.

"What's interesting about the FSA program is, on the one hand, it's this incredible document of America during the Great Depression, but on the other, it's this very important historical moment in relationship to photography," said Hoffman, the director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. "These guys really established a certain style and form for documentary photography that, till this day, is still the most prevalent one."

Hoffmann commissioned 12 of today's most well-known photographers -- Walead Beshty, Larry Clark, Roe Ethridge, Katy Grannan, William E. Jones, Sharon Lockhart, Catherine Opie, Rosler, Collier Schorr, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth and Hank Willis Thomas -- to document their view of the recession over the past year. One clear distinction between the FSA program and the current exhibit is that the former was government-run, the latter solely an artistic exercise.

The FSA was a New Deal program, and the first and only one of its kind. (More than 160,000 photographs from the program are now available to the public at the Library of Congress' website.) Its photography division was led by the director of the FSA's Historical Section, Roy Stryker, and the images ran in newspapers and magazines with the stated goal of introducing "America to Americans" -- the "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished" third of it. Stryker was heavily involved conceptually, giving his photographers shooting scripts -- specific directions on what to photograph, including "chicken dinners," "the 18th Amendment" and "looking down my street." (See copies of the shooting scripts below.) The photographers may have been laying the groundwork for a new form of documentary photography, but it was only a byproduct of their work as historians.

The FSA program did attract some criticism for using photographs as propaganda to shape Americans' opinions on Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives. But Rosler said she would be careful of treating them that way -- "photographers had different meanings and uses, and they were shot according to scripts -- the purpose wasn't propaganda," she said. On the whole, the contemporary artists share a respect for the unprecedented program and its photographers. But while they sit within the framework their predecessors established, they're also aware of its sentimental traps.

"The contemporary photographers were maybe resistant to documenting poverty -- the knowledge of critical theory in some way or another brought up issues when it becomes an exhibition of another person's misery," Hoffmann said. "For me this was also a way of thinking, how can you, in a way that doesn't punch someone in the face, talk about these issues?"

Some of the modern photographers intentionally mimic the FSA's emotional portraits, while others maintain more distance from their images. Rosler, on one end, is wary of documentary portraiture as "physiognomic stereotyping," whereas Soth, a Minnesota-based photographer who attempted a literal recreation of Lange’s migrant mother images, thinks this is a moot point.

"The fact is, when you're documenting people, you are using people for the work you're doing, but it doesn't mean it's evil," Soth said. "If you want to be a purist you're better off not photographing people at all -- a photograph is not the person."

Rosler's images of cafes in her neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are the antithesis to Soth's person-driven shots. She splits up her photographs into composites, offering more than one perspective in each. Even here, though, a "fair" view is undercut by the absence of those who are suffering.

"Everyone I photographed has a job," Rosler said. "A number of people refused to be photographed -- immigrants, Muslims -- because they claimed the climate of opinion [as a reason]. The people who are represented are in fairly good shape."

Soth captured a lower social rung than Rosler in his portraits, but he doubts his photos of Mexican migrants would be embraced by the nation as a representative image.

"We all have this affection for the migrant mother who's this white woman," Soth said. "If my picture could magically become the iconic image of its time, would we allow a Mexican-descent migrant worker to become an iconic image? I almost can't imagine that in our culture."

And while Soth's migrant mothers may be like Lange's in theory, in reality they are nothing like them -- they were migrant mothers before the recession and will continue to be migrant mothers after it, so the images carry less dramatic weight than one hitting the Depression timeline. This issue is not specific to migrants, but arose in a number of the artists' documents when it came to capturing the recession on a more human level. Willis Thomas, who photographed a gentrifying North Philadelphia neighborhood, said the economy doesn't factor in as much for those areas as the Depression did for its lower class.

"In lower income neighborhoods the recession doesn't mean so much because there's already a great deal of blight," Willis Thomas said. "During the boom time, there's as many abandoned houses as there are in the recession."

Much of this series tells a softer tale, a sort of "anthropological survey through the eyes of artists," Hoffmann said. Its images don't have the dramatic heft of say, Occupy Wall Street, but its narrative runs "parallel to the movement." Here, we see the 99 percent as a motley crew that continues to struggle and worry about its future, the same as it always has.

Is it possible, then, to have an image that is representative of this wide swathe? Hoffmann thinks so. He picked out Lockhart's cattle rancher photograph as the iconic image of "More American Photographs" (the first image below). The image shows ranchers bidding on cattle, with a number of social and business-minded dynamics playing out. The auction -- a small business in Visalia, Calif., that's been around since the 40s -- has struggled to meet the pressures of the real estate bubble, which forced ranchers to divvy up and sell their land, Lockhart said. But even while there's a sense that this is a grim reality for their livelihood, it also feels like a space of cultural interaction. Lockhart spent two days at the cattle ranch, searching for the right mixture of "expressions, interactions and people." She arrived at an image that neither pities nor glorifies its subjects.

"That work is sitting in the tradition of documentary photography," Hoffmann said, "but it also goes beyond -- it's one or two steps further."

"More American Photographs" is on display at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, through Dec. 17. A catalog of the images paired with essays is due out in January. The exhibit will then move on to the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Denver, Colorado, in March, the Wexner Center for the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio, in early 2013 and plans to move on to New York thereafter.

Click on the slideshow for images from "More American Photographs," along with selections from the FSA program, which run alongside the contemporary photos in the exhibit.

Photography in the Recession

Roy Stryker's shooting scripts for the FSA photographers:

To All Photographers