Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

Framing the Gaze – On Arthur Rothstein’s ‘Artelia’

It seems such a simple picture that I almost immediately dismiss it out of hand. A young black girl is visible through the window of a log cabin. The caption tells us her name is Artelia Bendolph, from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Her right fist is clenched, her left hand lightly folded over the window sill. Her hair is done up, with one unruly braid escaping to curl over her cheekbone. She is dressed in a light-coloured, slightly tattered t-shirt with rolled up sleeves. She seems pensive. The bare branches of a tree cast a shadow onto the cabin, spider-webbing her body and face. It must be a sunny winter’s day then, early spring at the latest.
Artelia Bendolph in Log Cabin, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
© Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

Other details start to emerge. The mud holding together the logs. The dried grass sticking out of the mud. The open shutter covered with old newspapers. They have seen better days, peeling off the wood at the edges. The conclusion seems almost foregone: this is a picture of someone living in fairly dire circumstances, no matter how much the sunshine dresses it up. Being informed that the photograph was taken by Arthur Rothstein on one of his assignments for the Farm Security Administration, the fate of the image is practically sealed. Had I not taken a second glance, that would have been all I would have taken away from this particular picture. [1]

But then I force myself to study it again. In particular, I take a closer look at the newspapers covering the windowpane. Instead of finding the latest news, I discover a large ad dead bang in the centre of the paper. It is a drawing of a white woman with neatly curled blond hair, large eyebrows and high cheekbones. She wears a dark short-sleeved top and looks down at the freshly baked bread in her hands. The accompanying slogans practically scream at me: “Really fresh thanks to Cellophane! Your baker offers you a tempting variety / Cellophane!”

The accompanying slogans practically scream at me: “Really fresh thanks to Cellophane! Your baker offers you a tempting variety / Cellophane!”

And suddenly something radically shifts in my perception. Here I am, a white female educated Dutch millennial studying this particular photograph from 1930s America, taken by a white male educated American photographer on a government-sponsored mission to document rural poverty with the ultimate goal of eradicating, or at the very least alleviating it. He directs his gaze by means of the camera at a poor black girl who in her turn looks towards the anonymous white wealthy woman in the ad. The latter almost shyly averts her eyes from Artelia’s penetrating gaze by looking down towards the bread.

The irony of it all is almost palpable. It is as if the blonde woman in the ad feels guilty about promoting this consumer item to an audience that most likely cannot afford purchasing it in the first place. And whereas Artelia stands tall and proud, the woman’s stance seems submissive, drawn in on herself, indirect – a product of the ad maker’s imagination. What’s more, this multitude of indirect gazes follows the outlines of an invisible cube. This is reenforced by the square form of the window framing Artelia, and the shutters framing the advertisement.

So all of a sudden there is this searingly intense dynamic of gender, power, wealth and race going on. I would very much like to draw the conclusion that the young black girl, usually found at the bottom of the social pyramid, is winning out in this one.

So all of a sudden there is this searingly intense dynamic of gender, power, wealth and race going on. I would very much like to draw the conclusion that the young black girl, usually found at the bottom of the social pyramid, is winning out in this one. Artelia sure does look like she holds her own in this photograph, as if she has somehow snatched back her agency from both the photographer, the ad maker and the viewer. Rothstein certainly seemed to believe so. However, he deliberately set up the composition to show Artelia looking at the woman in the newspaper ad to highlight the contrast in their respective life styles. [2]

It is precisely this that stops me in my tracks. I am reminded of what John Berger had to say about advertising: “It [is] credible because the truthfulness of [advertising] is judged, not by the real fulfilment of its promises, but by the relevance of its fantasies to those of the spectator-buyer. Its essential application is not to reality but to daydreams.” [3]

“In a world where no printed words are read except from the Bible, and newspapers are useful only when pasted over the walls of rooms to keep wind and cold from coming through cracks, opinions are very different from the world where beliefs are shaped by writers and editors.”

Artelia, however, does not look like she is in a position to buy cellophane any time soon, nor does it look like she is daydreaming about the day she may be able to do just that. Judging from the condition of her clothes and housing, she seems to have far more pressing concerns on her mind. And where Rothstein probably saw the advert as a representation of a certain enviable lifestyle that Artelia still needed to achieve, contemporaneous writer Julia Peterkin offers a different view: “In a world where no printed words are read except from the Bible, and newspapers are useful only when pasted over the walls of rooms to keep wind and cold from coming through cracks, opinions are very different from the world where beliefs are shaped by writers and editors.” [4] Peterkin could easily have added photographers and ad men to that roll call of people shaping middle class beliefs.

Ultimately, in this picture Artelia remains an unknowable and simplified Other. As a result she becomes “pure representation and it is the representation of the non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Western, non-capitalist as everything we, who are everything the Other cannot be.” [5]

The multiple worlds colliding into one frame are so disparate that any logical connection between them, as well as any possibility for empathy and understanding between the various participants in this photographic encounter, is lost.

Maybe this is because the many contrasts implied in the image are simply too big – between the viewer and Artelia, between Rothstein and Artelia, between the ad man and Artelia, and between Artelia and the woman depicted in the ad. Where does this leave me as the viewer? Truth be told, quite frustrated and disappointed. The multiple worlds colliding into one frame are so disparate that any logical connection between them, as well as any possibility for empathy and understanding between the various participants in this photographic encounter, is lost.

This essay is one of the outcomes of my research fellowship at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.

[1] For more information on Rothstein’s assignment, see here.

[2] As Rothstein points out himself during a lecture at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona on 23 November, 1970. The recording is part of the Casey Allen Collection of Oral History at the CCP. He aims to create what he calls the third effect: “What makes this a special picture is that it combines graphic symbols – such as the advertisement – with other elements in the photograph to create a third effect,” Rothstein says. “You see the girl – that’s effect one. You see the ad – that’s effect number two. But the third effect is when you see both images together and recognize the irony.” Arthur Rothstein, Documentary Photography, (Boston: Focal Press, 1986), 39.

[3] Julia Mood Peterkin, Roll, Jordan, Roll, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1933), 146.

[4] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 146.

[5] Christian Hansen, Catherine Needham and Bill Nichols, ‘Skin Flicks: Pornography, Ethnography, and the Discourses of Power,’ Discourse, 11, no 2 (1989), 65.

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