Highlights in Documentary: Lange, Evans, and Frank
Three documentary photobooks published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s became landmarks in the genre, critically influenced one another as well as successive generations of photographers, and cemented the significance of the photobook as the finest expression of a photographer’s legacy. Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus (1939) was published under the aegis of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration. Lange collaborated with her husband, the UC Berkeley economist Paul Schuster Taylor, to create a book that visualized the story of the farmworker exodus from the Dust Bowl to California, and suggested ways to ameliorate their situation. A powerful combination of empathetic artistry with dispassionate statistics, it is the model of engaged social documentary. Her positivist belief in the objectivity and agency of photography was challenged by Walker Evans, and later Robert Frank. Evans’ American Photographs (1938) was a solo project. His images, classically composed, merge irony and reverence in a visually literate way, and they emphatically spoke for themselves; each page featured one image, with the captions segregated to another section entirely. Evans’ careful sequencing created a narrative that evoked the “silent poetry” of such quintessentially vernacular American subjects as automobiles, folk architecture, billboards, and movies. The epitome of a true photobook, it greatly influenced Robert Frank working nearly twenty years later. The Swiss-born Frank trained his small 35mm camera on his adopted homeland to create The Americans in 1959. Like Lange, he had an emotional response to the inequities of American society. Like Evans, he relied on images over words, according each picture its own page and omitting all text save the captions (although extended captions were included in the French edition, despite his reservations). Also like Evans, he sequenced his images to reinforce certain recurring images and themes. Emblems of fifties America like the jukebox, the automobile, the flag, and even the open road evoked what Jack Kerouac called a “sad poem right out of America,” that was at once an intuitive, loose, messy, and highly personal exploration of the contradictions of the American dream.
The Logan Collection has a strong collection of documentary photography, beginning with the earliest works in the United Kingdom, John Thomson's Street Life in London (1877-78) and Thomas Annan's Old Glasgow (1878), and America, with the collected works of Jacob Riis and many titles by Lewis Hine. In the U.S. the thirties proved especially fertile for photographers seeking to document the social and economic dislocations of the Depression, and the Logan collection features seminal works from this decade by Margaret Bourke-White, Richard Wright, Ben Shahn, and other Farm Security Administration photographers. The documentary impulse grew more personal and less overtly political in the 1960s and 70s, with important photobooks by the photographers loosely known as "New Documentarians," Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus.