Social Documentary Genres of Photography

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

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

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a federal agency formed under the New Deal to assist poor farmers. The photographs of the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection form an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944. Under the visionary leadership of Roy Stryker, an economist from Columbia University, the FSA's Information Division hired more than twenty photographers to document the Depression, which created over 250,000 negatives from across the country between 1935 and 1943. These photographers included Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (American, 1895–1965), Russell Lee (American, 1903–1986), Arthur Rothstein (American, 1915–1985), Ben Shahn (Lithuanian-born American, 1898–1969), Jack Delano (Ukrainian-born American, 1914–1997), Marion Post Wolcott (American, 1910–1990), Gordon Parks (American, 1898–1969), John Vachon (American, 1914–1975), and Carl Mydans (American, 1907–2004). Beyond pure documentation, the goal of this effort was to educate the public about the public toll of the Depression, and to motivate Congress to fund relief efforts for the hardest hit.

The FSA’s Information Division was merged into the Office of War Information at the onset of World War II, and finally disbanded in 1943. The negatives and prints from the project are now housed in the Library of Congress.

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.

World War II (1939–1945)

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany. On April 9, 1940, Germany simultaneously invaded Norway and occupied Denmark. Almost two months later, on June 10, Italian leader Benito Mussolini put his Pact of Steel with Hitler into action and declared war against the Allied Powers. By early 1941, the Balkans joined the Axis Powers, and German troops overran Yugoslavia and Greece. The other half of Hitler’s strategy was the extermination of Jews in German-occupied Europe. Plans for the “Final Solution” were introduced around the time of the Soviet offensive, and over the next three years, more than four million Jews perished in death camps in occupied Poland.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, claiming the lives of more than 2,300 troops. This attack turned American opinion in favor of entering WWII. On December 8, Congress declared war on Japan and the Axis Powers promptly declared war on the U.S. On June 6, 1944, celebrated as “D-Day,” the Allied Powers began a massive invasion of Europe, landing 156,000 British, Canadian, and American soldiers on the beaches of Normandy, France. An intensive aerial bombardment in February 1945 preceded the Allied land invasion of Germany, and by the time Germany formally surrendered on May 8, Hitler was already dead, having committed suicide on April 30 in his Berlin bunker.

Heavy casualties sustained in the campaigns at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, as well as the fears of costlier land invasion of Japan, led President Truman to authorize the use of a new and devastating weapon—the atomic bomb—on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On September 2, 1945, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender.

WWII proved to be the most devastating international conflict in history, taking the lives of some 35–60 million people, including six million Jews who dies at the hands of Nazis. Millions more were injured, and still more lost their homes and property. –Courtney Mengel ’19, Majors: Art & Visual Culture, English, Fall 2018 Gallery Intern

W. Eugene Smith (American, 1918–1978), Soldiers on Okinawa, Japan (World War II), 1945 (printed in 1950s), silver print, 10 1/2 x 13 3/8 inches, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, purchased with the Suzanne Schrotberger Acquisition and Conservation Fund, 2018.2.

Photo reportage was altering the nature of magazine journalism when W. Eugene Smith arrived in New York City in 1937. These changes provided unique opportunities for young photographers. After two years of developing his skills, Smith, only nineteen at the time, found himself working for Life magazine. His assignments covered various themes such as life in a “Spanish Village,” a “Country Doctor,” and a “Nurse Midwife.”

When the United States became involved in World War II, Smith was drawn to the conflict, and as part of an assignment, he traveled to the Pacific Islands. Smith’s documentation of warfare influenced his photographic style, which led him to capture photos that appear as if he were fighting alongside his subjects. The same year Smith photographed Soldiers on Okinawa, Japan (WWII), he was wounded while working close to the action. Soldiers on Okinawa, Japan (WWII) focuses on the physical and emotional experiences of two soldiers, one of whom is wounded, as they hold onto each other amid war. –Courtney Mengel ’19, Majors: Art & Visual Culture, English, Fall 2018 Gallery Intern

Roman Vishniac

Born on August 19, 1897 in Pavlovsk, Russia, Roman Vishniac was enthralled with biology and photography as a young boy. For his seventh birthday, Vishniac was given a camera that he was able to connect to his microscope. The first thing he did was take a photo of a cockroach’s leg. Vishniac later studied zoology at Shanyavsky Institute in Moscow. During Vishniac’s studies, his family moved to Berlin to escape the Bolshevik Revolution. He followed shortly after them. In Berlin, Vishniac began to focus more on his interest in photography and studied art at the University of Berlin. Up until that point, Vishniac had been prosperous and his photography depicted the streets of Berlin and its people. However, these photos slowly begin to reveal the changes that were taking place in the city. Nazi flags adorned the streets and posters depicting Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were displayed in storefronts. As anti-Semitism grew, Jews were no longer allowed to freely take photos in the streets. Vishniac often used his daughter Mara as a “prop” so that he could say he was just taking a picture of her. In 1935, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee commissioned Vishniac to photograph Jewish communities in Eastern Europe to raise funds for poor communities. He spent the next three years traveling to countries across Eastern Europe taking the photos that later became the only living memory of countless European Jews. By 1939 and 1940, Jews were being placed into ghettos in Poland, and by 1942, the Nazi’s Final Solution had begun.

Vishniac and his family eventually managed to escape to America. Hidden by Vishniac, his family, and friends, his photographs eventually made it to America, too. A Vanished World contains many of these photographs, which are considered to be some of the most important social documents recording the memory of Jews later tragically killed in the Holocaust. Of the 16,000 photographs that he took between 1934–1939, only 2000 remain. –Ian Rex ’21, Major: History, Fall 2020 Gallery Intern

Roman Vishniac (Russian-American, 1897–1990), Lodz, Poland, 1936, silver print, 12 1/8 x 9 1/8 inches, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Richard and Pauline Charles, 2019.1.1.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had commissioned Vishniac to photograph Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the late 1930s as the Nazi party and antisemitism were on the rise. A Vanished World (1977) contains many of these photographs and Vishniac’s commentary, including Lodz, Poland:

The beloved grandfather filled his days looking out at the street. He had no shoes. Only wage earners had shoes.” –(A Vanished World)

Without context, Vishniac’s photographs in A Vanished World appear ordinary. The elderly man shown in Lodz, Poland simply gazes out the window toward the viewer while wearing an expression of vague yearning. However, once one realizes that the photo was taken in a Jewish ghetto before the Holocaust, its drama is heightened.

Elie Wiesel, a well-known Holocaust survivor and author, writes in the foreword of A Vanished World: “A supreme witness, Vishniac evokes with sorrow and with love this picturesque and fascinating Jewish world he has seen engulfed by fire and darkness.” Most of the people shown in Vishniac’s photos perished in the Holocaust. Tragically, these photos are all that is left of the many Jewish communities that existed in Eastern Europe. –Ian Rex ’21, Major: History, Fall 2020 Gallery Intern

Charles “Teenie” Harris

Charles “Teenie” Harris (American, 1908–1998), Teenie Harris with camera, ca. 1940, silver print, 6 ¾ x 4 ½ inches, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Richard and Pauline Charles, 2019.1.3.

By the early twentieth century, an increasing demand for portraits and other social documents, in addition to easier access to materials, led to an increase in the number of commercially successful black photographers in their own communities. Born in Pittsburgh, Charles “Teenie” Harris had a studio in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. In an essay for the book One Shot Harris, photography art historian Deborah Willis says that black photographers’ images “transferred to other blacks a communal image of prestige and power.”

Nicknamed “One Shot” because of Harris’s ability to capture images with just one shot, the self-portrait above portrays a jaunty profile image of Harris with his camera as he casually props his foot on a neighborhood building’s exterior windowsill.

Charles “Teenie” Harris (American, 1908–1998), Bebop group, Pittsburgh, ca. 1948, silver print, 7 15/16 x 10 1/16 inches, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Richard and Pauline Charles, 2019.1.2.

Most of “Teenie” Harris’s photographs focused on the African-American community in Pittsburgh. He was well known for his work for the Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of the country’s most prominent black newspapers during the early to mid-1900s. The Teenie Harris Archive located at the Carnegie Museum of Art consists of over 70,000 pictures. This collection is one of the most comprehensive records of the urban African-American experience in the United States.

This photo portrays the vocalists in a bebop group in Pittsburgh. Bebop was a form of jazz that featured small groups, usually consisting of two horns and a rhythm section. Bebop, much like conventional jazz, was mainly created by African Americans. Jazz first became popular in the 1920s and bebop emerged during the 40s, its popularity lasting through the 50s. Harris' style is best seen here, conveying a sense of the unified performance of this sharply dressed sextet as they harmonize a bebop melody in a local club. –Ian Rex ’21, Major: History, Fall 2020 Gallery Intern