Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Documentary Attraction

For their midterm project, I asked my students in Advanced Photovisual Communications at the University of South Carolina to write about a photography exhibition currently at the Columbia Museum of Art. This exhibition, called “Seeing Ourselves: Masterpieces of American Photography,” contains 155 photographs from the George Eastman House Collection. The exhibition has five sections: “American Masterpieces,” “American Faces,” “America at War,” “America The Beautiful,” and “American Families.” Bringing this exhibition to Columbia, South Carolina, was a real coup for the art museum — this is world-class photography, in original prints rarely seen outside major metropolitan areas.

Here is the assignment I gave my students: “You’ve been hired by a major photography magazine to write an article about the exhibition. The magazine has room for only five pictures, one from each section, with your accompanying text. The editor (that would be me) wants to know which five pictures you have selected and why.” I asked my students to critique each of the five photographs they selected based on criteria in a handout I gave them.

More importantly, I asked them to justify their decision: “Why did you pick these five images for your article and not any of the others? Do the five relate to each other in some way, or are they independent? What makes each one the best representative of its section? Will the readers of your article get a useful understanding of the exhibition from seeing and reading about these five images?”

What interests me is how many of my 19 students were drawn to a handful of classic images, among them “A Harvest of Death,” by Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1863); “The Steerage,” by Alfred Stieglitz (1907); and “‘Tiny’ in Her Halloween Costume,” by Mary Ellen Mark (1983). These three black-and-white images, spanning 120 years of American photography, confront the viewer with an immediacy typical of what we now call documentary photography. But each of these images also contains layers of meaning not immediately apparent to the viewer.

For example, who are the dead soldiers in O’Sullivan’s Gettysburg photograph? The caption, written by Alexander Gardner to accompany the O’Sullivan photograph in “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War,” identified the soldiers as “rebels represented … without shoes.” But according to the Getty Museum Web site, they are most likely Union troops — shoes were in short supply on both sides, and those of the dead were removed to provide other soldiers with footwear. Death, apparently, does not draw fine distinctions. As Gardner wrote in his caption: “Such a picture conveys a useful moral: It shows the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition to its pageantry. Here are the dreadful details! Let them aid in preventing such another calamity falling upon the nation.”

Were the immigrants in Stieglitz’s famous photograph about to disembark in America, land of opportunity? Actually, according to the Worcester Art Museum Web site, Stieglitz was on an eastbound ship, and the people pictured were being sent back to Europe, having failed to gain entry to the United States. Stieglitz was apparently drawn to the compositional elements of the photograph, not its social content. Peter B. Harris, professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Colby College, says this photograph is full of “teachable ironies,” including the fact that Stieglitz, like many immigrants at that time, was a Jew, but was “uncomfortable with his ethnicity.”

Finally, what are we to make of Tiny, dressed for Halloween as a Parisian prostitute? In 1983, Mark and reporter Cheryl McCall visited Seattle, Washington, for a LIFE article on street children. The visit was the beginning of a documentary project that became “Streetwise,” a book and also a film by Mark’s husband, Martin Bell. Tiny, whose real name is Erin Blackwell, was a child prostitute; she was featured in both the book and the film. The photograph in her Halloween costume was taken on the last night of shooting, during a party at the Dismas Center, a drop-in facility for street children. Hugging herself with gloved hands, Tiny expresses through her body language proud defensiveness combined with sad vulnerability.

I am glad my students were moved, provoked, and perhaps troubled by these images. The documentary style seems to appeal to many of them. When my students research and present photographic work they admire, the photographers they choose are often part of the documentary tradition — people such as Gordon Parks, Lewis Hine, Herman Leonard, Bruce Davidson, and Patrick Brown. And many of my students present some of their own work in grayscale mode, obviously finding something appealing in a return to classic, black-and-white imagery, with its echoes of the distant, and not too distant, past.

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