A great new essay by Meighen Katz in the November 2014 issue of The Public Historian explores the pros and cons of using the FSA photography collection in contemporary museum exhibits about the Great Depression. Katz points out that because the FSA collection is so culturally ubiquitous even today, it is natural that curators would think of it as an essential go-to for exhibit content. She writes, "The images have become a synecdoche, a small part of the American experience of the Depression that is called upon to represent the diverse narratives of the entire decade" (16). Katz tells us that there are great advantages to using the FSA photos: they offer tremendous resources for exploring communication strategies of the era, they enable useful conversations about poverty, and (no small thing in this day and age) they are freely accessible. Yet Katz cautions that curators need to be careful that their exhibits don't uncritically imply that the FSA collection offers a complete picture of the American 1930s. In particular, she rightly worries that if museums lean too heavily on a collection of photographs designed largely to communicate resilience in the face of poverty, they may miss other, less easily-visualized poverty stories of "vulnerability and insecurity" (24) that took place in the years before the FSA photographers began to roam the country with their cameras.
I appreciate these arguments so much -- never more so than when I walk into an exhibit at, say, the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, and find a giant reproduction of Lange's Migrant Mother staring me in the face. Not only is there so much more to the Depression than the FSA file communicates, there is so much more to the FSA file than most members of the public realize.
Maybe that's one of the reasons, more than a decade after my dissertation and first book, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs, I keep going back to the FSA collection. There's just so much there. And not only images, either. A chapter in my new book, Making Photography Matter: A Viewer's History from the Civil War to the Great Depression, turns to a 1938 exhibit of FSA photographs in New York City and studies more than 500 comments left by visitors. Attempting to make sense of viewers' diverse, surprisingly detailed, and often contradictory responses to the photographs gave me quite a workout. It forced me to reconcile (and sometimes abandon) *my* ways of reading the pictures and try for a moment to inhabit other eyes.
Research news, commentary on visual politics, and a few old blog posts given new life.