Errol Morris: The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock (Part 2)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Errol Morris is a filmmaker whose movie "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara" won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2004. He has also directed "Gates of Heaven," "The Thin Blue Line," "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control," "A Brief History of Time" and "Standard Operating Procedure."]

James Curtis, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, in 1991 published a revisionist history of F.S.A. photography, “Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: F.S.A. Photography Reconsidered.” Curtis’s thesis was simple. “The bitter reality” of the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) photographs was not the result of clinical, photographic field work: “The realism was deliberate, calculated, and highly stylized.” According to Curtis, many of the most famous of the F.S.A. photographs — Walker Evans’ interior of the Gudger home in Hale County, Ala. (which appeared in Evans’s collaboration with James Agee, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”), Arthur Rothstein’s “Fleeing a dust storm” and the most famous photograph of all, Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” — were all arranged, staged and manipulated [5] [6].The purity of the F.S.A. style had to be called into question and reexamined.

JAMES CURTIS: When I published “Mind’s Eye,” the dean of the college said to me “That was a really, really chancy thing for you to do.” And I said “Why?” “Well, it’s so inflammatory and subversive.” And I said “Well, I don’t really think so. If historians want to use photographs as evidence in the true sense, and put them in the context in which they originally appeared, then you come up with questions about posing. I was just trying to urge my fellow historians to use the same evidentiary practice and technique on photographs that they would use on written documents, that photographs have a point of view. And, despite the fact that the photographers say that they are just snapping what’s in front of them, they often go out in the field with a very definite idea of what they want to return with.

ERROL MORRIS: Did you start with the cow skull controversy?

JAMES CURTIS: Yes. The steer skull was my point of entry. But by the time I got around to the book, I decided I wanted to get past the steer skull very quickly, because that issue had already been debated so much. And yes, Arthur Rothstein moved that skull around, and he admitted as much. And Rothstein, if anything, except for “Fleeing a dust storm,” instead of trying to create his own sense of the world, was a pretty faithful servant of the F.S.A. Russell Lee was another F.S.A. photographer. And he, like Rothstein, would go out and take a huge number of pictures. You’ve got a treasure trove in the F.S.A. file for this reason: it is largely unedited. (When you go to Ansel Adams, for example, you’re going to a collection that has been heavily edited by the photographer himself, so that you’re only going to see the particular pictures that the photographer wanted you to see.) In the case of the F.S.A. file, they’re all there, and even some that have holes punched in them are there [7].

It’s like putting an archaeological find back together from the shards that you uncover in a dig. And once you get the pieces of the puzzle, all 475 pictures in Pie Town, N.M., for example, taken by Russell Lee, once you put all those in context, you get a pretty good idea of what he had in mind when he was shooting the pictures of that community. It’s not just “Let’s see life as we find it.” He had a very definite idea of what that community should stand for. And he felt a very urgent need to get that out. I never published this one, but I was often tempted to — there’s correspondence between Russell Lee and Roy Stryker after John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” comes out in 1939. And Russell Lee comes up with an idea. He says to Stryker [the head of the F.S.A.], “Why don’t we try to create a series of photographs that could illustrate ‘Grapes of Wrath’?” And so, he goes to eastern Oklahoma — rather than to Steinbeck’s locations in western Oklahoma. And he finds a family and literally walks them through the early stages of the flight to California, including buying a loaf of bread from the storekeeper. And they felt that they were going to be able to sell these photographs to the publisher for an illustrated version of “Grapes of Wrath.” Unfortunately, Thomas Hart Benton, the artist, beat them to it. It’s his illustrations that are brought out in a new edition of “Grapes of Wrath.” It was propaganda...

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