Social Documentary Photography
Documentary photography in America has roots going back to the late nineteenth century, beginning with Jacob Riis (Danish-American, 1849–1914), who photographed the tenements of New York, and Lewis Hine (American, 1874–1940), who exposed child labor practices in attempt to encourage reform. Later during the Great Depression, writers and photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) sought to capture the struggle of American farmers. FSA photographers featured in Genres of Photography include Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975), Russell Lee (American, 1903–1986), and Marion Post Wolcott (American, 1910–1990).
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, photographers predominately saw photography as a tool for promoting social change. These social documentary photographers strove to bring the public’s attention to ongoing socio-political issues by focusing on a single group at work, at home, or at school in order to bring light to the group’s particular struggles. –Rebekka Carpenter ’18, Majors: Art & Visual Culture, Historical Communication
Hugo Brehme (German-born Mexican, 1882–1954), Taxco, gro [Guerrero], n.d., photograph, 10 ½ x 7 ¾ inches framed, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Dr. Donald E. Byrne, LVC professor emeritus of religion, 1996.1.1.
Under the dictatorial rule of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico experienced a long period of stability from 1876–1911, until a wildly falsified election led to a series of revolutions and, ultimately, a civil war. In the 1920s, the Institutional Revolutionary Party took power, stimulating the imaginations of Mexico’s artists. German immigrant Hugo Brehme, who immigrated to Mexico with his wife in 1908, brought with him European notions of Romanticism: an outsider, reveling in the beauty of the culture with the eye of an intrigued onlooker. Brehme became internationally renowned for his photography books in the 1920s and 1930s; however, it his mass-produced tourist postcards supported him throughout much of his career. Photography, as a mass-produced medium, appealed to the sensibilities of many revolutionary, socialist artists (most notably Diego Rivera [Mexican, 1886–1957] and others in the Mexican Muralist Movement) who wished to give art to the masses, rather than to the privileged few. –David Yasenchak ’13, Major: Studio Art & Art History, Spring 2013 Gallery Intern
Hugo Brehme (German-born Mexican, 1882−1954), Xochimilco, Oaxaca, n.d., photograph, 10 ½ x 7 ¾ inches framed, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Dr. Donald E. Bryne, LVC professor emeritus of religion, 1996.1.2.
Originally from Germany, Brehme came to Mexico in 1905 and spent most of his life taking photos of Mexico for his studies back in Germany. Brehme is best known for his photographic works of early twentieth-century Mexico printed on postcards. In his photographs he was able to capture an idyllic vision of Mexico. His works influenced other Mexican photographers such as Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902−2002) as well as Mexican filmmakers. The topics of his photographs range from scenic landscapes, images of everyday life of the indigenous people of Mexico, colonial architecture, and the Mexican Revolution. Because of his usage of printing his photos on postcards, his images gained a widespread circulation, allowing him to be nationally and internationally acclaimed by some as the first modern photographer of Mexico. Shortly before his death in 1954, Brehme became a naturalized Mexican citizen.
Xochimilco, Oaxaca was taken in a traditional neighborhood in Oaxaca City, Mexico where Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated with a mixture of ancient indigenous and post-Catholic traditions. The photograph shows an example of Brehme's ability to capture an everyday moment in an interesting and artistic way. –Caitlin Courogen ’16, Major: Art & Art History, Museum Studies ART 340, Fall 2015 Gallery Intern
Hugo Brehme (German-born Mexican, 1882–1954), Catedral, Mexico, n.d., photograph, 10 ½ x 7 ¾ inches framed, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Dr. Donald E. Byrne, LVC professor emeritus of religion, 1996.1.3.
Upon their emigration to Mexico, Brehme and his wife settled in Mexico City. Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos (Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven) is the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese in Mexico and its construction was begun in 1573. Because the cathedral was built on the sacred precinct of the Aztec civilization, it has become a center of Mexican cultural identity as well as a symbol of its colonial past.
The Farm Security Administration
Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975), Cabin Interior, 1936, reprint from U.S. Library of Congress, 9 ¼ x 6 1/8 inches (17 x 12 5/8 inches, framed), reprint from U.S. Library of Congress, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Alice Brumbaugh, 2012.8.3.
“Walker Evans was already an accomplished artist when he joined the FSA program. He first picked up the camera in the 1920s as a literature student in Paris. Besides his FSA work, Evans documented subjects as diverse as New England architecture and the corrupt Machado regime in Cuba, and collaborated with writer James Agee (American, 1909–1955) on the classic book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). His 1938 exhibition Walker Evans: American Photographs, at the Museum of Modern Art, was the institution’s first one-man photography show; the accompanying catalog is considered the most influential photography monograph published before World War II (1939–1945). Later, Evans went on to be photo editor at Fortune magazine and a professor at Yale University.
“Evans's work is deceptively simple. His architectural photographs can be read literally or abstractly as a symphony of complex angles and striking juxtapositions. His portraits are straight forward yet manage to reveal each sitter's personality.” –Dorothea Lange’s America, art2art Circulating Exhibitions
Marion Post Wolcott (American, 1910–1990), Snowy Night (Woodstock, Vermont), 1940, reprint from U.S. Library of Congress, 7 1/8 x 9 3/8 inches (14 ¼ x 16 inches, framed), reprint from U.S. Library of Congress, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Alice Brumbaugh, 2012.8.2.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created social programs to help relieve the suffering brought on by the economic and social catastrophe of the Great Depression through the New Deal. One of the projects was the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA photography project served to document the harsh conditions facing the rural poor during the Depression and to both promote and document governmental relief initiatives.
“Marion Wolcott was raised in New Jersey, frequented lower Manhattan, and felt destined for a career as a teacher. [However] her first teaching job in rural Massachusetts exposed her to the problems of the poor, and a stint in Austria exposed her to anti-Semitism and fascism. Wolcott turned to photography due to the advice of Viennese photographer Trude Fleischmann (Austrian-born American, 1895–1990), and was later recommended to FSA Director Roy Stryker by the master photographers Paul Strand (American, 1890–1976) and Ralph Steiner (American, 1899–1986). Strand and Steiner oversaw Wolcott’s work at the New York Photo League, an alliance of socially-concerned photographers committed to the Progressive movement.” –Dorothea Lange’s America, art2art Circulating Exhibitions
Russell Lee (American, 1903–1986), Family on Relief, Chicago, Illinois, April, 1941, gelatin silver, printed later. 9-3/..., Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, purchased with the Suzanne Schrotberger Acquisition and Conservation Fund, 2020.3.
Trained as a chemical engineer at Lehigh University, Russell Lee went on to study painting before becoming an FSA photographer. In 1938 he met newspaperwoman Jean Smith in New Orleans who became his wife and they worked together as a team on his assignments. Although most of Lee's work for FSA was about rural and small town life, in 1941 he and Jean went to Chicago to photograph urban blacks. He had been invited by Black writer Richard Wright to photograph some of the worst of the problems facing urban blacks for his book Twelve Million Black Voices (1941). Lee and his wife were appalled by what they had seen and became committed to the advancement of African Americans thereafter. In later years. he worked as an industrial and medical photographer, and taught photography at the University of Texas.