Alfred Kazin, a cultural critic of the 30s and 40s, wrote about the documentary genre that "if the accumulation of visual scenes seemed only a collection of 'mutually repellant particles,' as Emerson said of his sentences, was not that discontinuity, that havoc of pictorial sensations, just the truth of what the documentary mind saw before it in the 1930s?" (Stott 77).
In the case of the FSA photography, can this have been true? As the public relations project of a federal program, the FSA certainly had an interest in producing a body of images that reflected a coherent ideology. Reading an ideological agenda out of the FSA photographs can be a productive but methodologically challenging task.
Kazin's On Native Grounds took on the subject of literature as well as photography in its exploration of the culture of the 1930s. In that spirit, I've considered a passage from Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children on the nature of historical perspective in thinking about how to read the work of the FSA.
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems- but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible. Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, row by row, until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grostesque proportions; the illusion dissolves- or rather, it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality... (189).
Rushdie is talking, here, about the question of objectivity about the recent past. I think his movie screen metaphor works well both for more general issues of historical perspective and, also, for the body of FSA photography. Up close, many of the photos can seem like Emerson's "mutually repellant particles," like a "havoc of pictorial sensations." They hold within them worlds of historical meaning that exist quite independently of the overarching themes we may see come into focus when we step back to consider the photographs more as a body of work.
I've tried to cultivate the type of critical perspective that moves constantly between the first and last rows of the cinema house, so that neither interpretive framework, that which favors creative chaos and that which sees metanarrative, is lost to my vision.
Juliet Gorman, May 2001