American Poverty and Colour Photography – On the Images of the FSA, Jacob Holdt and Doug Rickard
Sometimes you get struck by the oddest similarities. One which is currently occupying my mind is the recurrence of a striking depiction of poverty in America in colour photography since the 1930s.
In the starting blocks is a well-known photography project, initiated in 1935 by the Farm Security Administration. It was a government-funded initiative and set out not only to depict rural poverty, but also to document governmental efforts to alleviate it. It was a watershed moment in the history of photography. Never before had documentary photography been used to such an extent for such a purpose. The lasting influence of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let us now praise famous men is without dispute. Evans was of course not the only photographer associated with the Farm Security Administration. In fact, slightly over a dozen photographers were sent out to map the nation during a period of nine years. They brought back with them an astonishing record of Dustbowl America, showing many different aspects of life.1
The start of the FSA photography project coincided with the arrival of Kodachrome film on the stage. Even though the majority of the images were shot in black and white, a number of photographers started using colour photography alongside their black and white work. The most prominent of those were Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, John Collier, John Vachon and Russell Lee. Unlike the black and white stuff, which found ready use in many publications at the time, the colour photographs were largely ignored, then misfiled and subsequently forgotten. They were only rediscovered in the late 1970s, well after American photographers such as Eggleston, Shore and Sternfeld started using colour photography as a documentary tool. Ever since their rediscovery, the FSA colour photographs have slowly but steadily gained recognition. Now known as ‘Bound for Glory’, the images are simply stunning. They feel much closer, much more real than the black and white images of the same era. Looking at Walker Evans’ photographs or at the famous Dorothea Lange image, you can feel the despair and grinding poverty. It is beautiful, but it feels distant both in time and place.
Not so with the colour images. In them, the sun is always shining. The skies are blue, the grass is green, the clouds are white, the shadows are black, the shacks are brown, and the earth is red or yellow. The pictures are populated by ruddy-cheeked farmers and their wives. Their children are poor but seem happy. We see people working, praying, eating, sleeping, playing, dancing. Granted, the life on show is not one of luxury, but all in all it does not look so bad. The photographs themselves are stunning in their quality. The colours are saturated and vibrant, the images are sharp and well-composed.
Fast forward about 35 years and have a look at Jacob Holdt’s magnum opus American Pictures. Arriving in the United States in 1970 on his way through to South America, he ends up staying there, hitchhiking his way around the country for the next five years. Holdt met up with an incredibly wide array of people, rubbing elbows both with the rich and the poor. Nonetheless, he focussed primarily on the underclasses in rural and urban America. Not originally a professional photographer, he ended up selling his blood to acquire film for his pocket camera, a gift from his parents. His pictures unsurprisingly bear many technical deficiencies. They are on occasion under-lit, overexposed, and out of focus. But he was using colour photography well before it became de rigueur for art and documentary photographers. And similar to the FSA photographs, Holdt’s work has slowly but steadily been gaining recognition and admiration. Looking at Holdt’s images I am struck by the many similarities between his work and that of the FSA photographers. The wooden shacks are there, as are the migrant workers, the old woman on her porch, and the advertising signs. Indeed, it might not be too far-fetched to see in Holdt’s subjects the descendants of those once depicted by the FSA photographers.
But in Holdt’s images the American Dream has gone sour. Most of the colours have started to wash out. The skies have turned grey or dark as night. The poverty has not gone away. In fact, it seems like it has become more entrenched, more desperate. We see more dirt, more sex, more criminality. We don’t see anyone working or playing. We see people trying various routes of escape, be it the Ku Klux Klan, alcohol, prostitution or burglary. But some of the colours are still there, making the photographs feel all too real. The red of a Budweiser can, the yellow of a partially working neon Shell sign, the blue trousers of a young woman feeding her baby, the green wall of a flat in the projects.
Fast forward another 35 years and look at Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture. The sun is back in these images, and so are the blue skies, the white clouds and the black shadows. But just about every other colour in the colour spectrum has been completely bleached away. The technical standards have also taken a dive since the FSA project and Holdt’s work. Correct exposure and focus have completely gone out of the window. This is of course a result of Rickard’s working method, by rephotographing photos made across America for Google Street View. Nonetheless, it seems apt considering the outlook on American society on offer. This is a broken land. These are broken people. Whereas in the FSA pictures and in Holdt’s images the people portrayed seemed willing participants or simply unaware of being photographed, in Rickard’s work they are hostile, or do no longer care about anything. In these images the shops are permanently closed and boarded up. The neon-advertising has finally stopped working. The possible descendants of those small-time farmers are no longer working or playing at all, or indeed doing much of anything. They are standing about, hanging out on the street corner. Waiting. Forever waiting.
1 Even though the Farm Security Administration’s photographers set out with a different purpose, they seem to share many similarities with the people behind Mass Observation, which set out to record all different aspects of life in Britain. The Mass Observation project started around the same time in 1937, but lasted much longer, namely well into the mid-1960s.