What you see is not what you get

During the turbulent 1930s, American photographers manipulated reality just like their Soviet counterparts.

August 15, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Baby boomers have no memory of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Yet I'd venture to say most boomers, myself included, believe they have an idea of what it looked like.

That mental picture, of bleak rural poverty and urban bread lines, owes its origin almost entirely to the photographers of the Farm Security Administration, one of the federal agencies set up to administer relief programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

The FSA photographs form a sort of collective memory of those times, even for Americans old enough to have lived through them. That is because photography's illusion of truthfulness works in much the same way as do memory and dreams. It is an imitation of the world that compels belief regardless of the actual circumstances of its making.

It is photography's claim to truthfulness, however spurious, that constitutes the subtext of "Propaganda and Dreams," a show of American and Soviet photography from the 1930s at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.

In both countries, the 1930s were years of turmoil and upheaval. In the United States, the Depression had thrown millions out of work and shattered the American dream of prosperity and progress. In the Soviet Union, Stalin's program of rapid industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture was violently transforming what had been a backward agrarian society.

Leaders in both countries enlisted photography to support their programs. The FSA photographers produced pictures in-tended to provoke sympathy for victims of the Depression and rally support for relief efforts. Soviet photographers were exhorted to make pictures demonstrating the triumphs of socialism in forging a modern industrial nation.

Thus photography was invoked as a powerful instrument of propaganda in both the Soviet Union and the United States, despite their radically different ideologies. Photographs put into service of official policy were carefully selected to reinforce the picture of reality government leaders wanted to convey.

Over the span of just a few years, the FSA photographers -- whose ranks included such artists as Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee and Walker Evans -- succeeded in producing some of the most memorable images of the century.

Lange's unforgettable "Migrant Mother," a picture of a destitute farm wife and her children, and Walker Evans' stark group shot, "Bud Fields and His Family at Home," are just two of the highlights of this part of the show.

On the Russian side, photographer Alexander Rodchenko is probably most familiar to Americans, but many other talented Soviet artists made pictures for their government, including Ivan Shagin, Boris Ignatovich, Mark Markov-Grinberg, Georgy Petrusov, Max Alpert and Arkady Shishkin.

Rodchenko's "Pioneer Girl," a close-cropped portrait of a young collective farm worker, exemplified the heroic style called for by the official Socialist Realism aesthetic. The girl's face, seen from slightly below and framed by a cloudless sky, expresses the determined spirit of hard work and self-sacrifice Soviet rulers expected.

In contrast to the Americans, whose pictures often stressed the ability of the individual to face personal crisis and overcome it, Soviet photographers portrayed the struggle against adversity as a group effort to be conquered by disciplined teamwork.

Ignatovich and Shishkin's photographs of collective farm workers and Shagin and Alpert's pictures of parades and political rallies all suggest the power of great masses of people acting together according to a centrally organized plan.

By juxtaposing Soviet and American photography from the same period, "Propaganda and Dreams" implicitly questions the relationship between truth and propaganda, history and myth.

In particular, it asks American viewers to reconsider their conception of this country's past in light of what we know of the Soviets' use of similar techniques to manipulate and distort reality to cement power in a despotic regime.

The show stops short of suggesting any sort of moral equivalence between America and the Soviet Union. America was in dire straits, but its government was basically attempting to alleviate suffering, while Stalin's minions were murdering millions in the name of the socialist utopia.

Still, there is no way of deducing the enormous difference between the two societies merely by looking at the photographs. That is ultimately the most troubling issue raised by this thought-provoking show.

We are wedded to these images, not only because they have been inexorably absorbed into our consciousness, but also because we have nothing to put in their place.

It is possible, of course, to conceive of the Depression as something not represented by Lange's migrant mother or Evans' exhausted farmer. But it is quite another thing to imagine convincing substitutes for these familiar pieces of mental furniture.

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