In 1935 Roy E. Stryker, head of the Information division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), commissioned several photographers – including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee – to document America’s farm life and workers. The USA was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the scenes that the image-makers captured, from 1935-1944, created a damning and lasting vision of destitution. Lange’s 1936 portrait of the so-called Migrant Mother became a symbol of the plight of the impoverished itinerant farmers, for example – and, for Stryker, summed up his entire project at the FSA. “She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too,” he reportedly said. “A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal.” As Stryker’s words suggest, he had a very particular vision of what he wanted to achieve with these photographs. Images that did not fit in with that vision were ruthlessly “killed” – rendered unpublishable by having a hole punched through the negative. Thousands of photographs were defaced in this way, in an act of censorship that has since been described as vandalism.
Vanessa Winship’s biggest UK show to date, the first UK retrospective of Dorothea Lange, and a huge group exhibition including work by photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, Dayanita Singh, Alec Soth, Chris Steele-Perkins, Daido Moriyama, Diane Arbus, Pieter Hugo, Bruce Davidson, and Boris Mikhailov – they’re all coming up this year at London’s Barbican Centre, in a season titled The Art of Change.
“Everyone talks about 1968 as the year of revolution, but America was burning in 1967,” says Mark Sealy. “There were many riots and disturbances that year, but Parks was looking at intimacy, not running across the country shooting riots. He was telling history through these very personal stories.” He’s talking about Gordon Parks, the feted documentary photographer and film-maker (best known for directing Shaft). In particular Sealy is talking about Parks’ work with the Fontenelles, a family living in poverty in Harlem in 1967 that Parks photographed for a 16-page story published in Life in March ’68.
“There are two important things about this show,” says Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA. “First, the quantity of work – more than 300 photographs, quite a large selection, because we were able to get support from most of the big institutions – MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Canada, the Musée du Quai Branly and so on, and private collections from around the world. Second, is the fact that it is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Usually when you look at important retrospectives they are chronological, but we organised by theme because we wanted to organise it around Evans’ passion for the vernacular. He was fascinated with vernacular culture.”