Documentary Excellence

I’ve been struck by what I call The Documentary Impulse and now, I’m trying to inspire masters students to allow themselves to do the same. This is creating something of a quandary. What worked for Daniel Defoe in the early 1700s documenting a London plague, and for the writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans in the 1930s (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), seems fraught with new-fangled difficulty today. Can you imagine today, for instance, being welcomed into the makeshift homes of three share-cropper families in the deep South, especially if you’re from the Northeast elite? I suspect before you got to the door, you’d be peppered with buckshot. Or try replicating the “eye on the street” of many early 20th-century photographers.

One of my white, middle-aged male students did exactly that on the Lake Street bus. He pointed a new digital camera ar a crown on the bus and began clicking. Americans and work was his subject, and here he was surrounded by them. Suddenly behind him an African-American women began to scream that he had no right to take photos, Suddenly a Somali woman was trying  to wrest the camera from him. The photographer  stretched out his arm and edged her back. He threatened to call the police if she didn’t stop. Finally the woman’s husband came between them.

“You must ask permission,” I said softly, remembering what our class visitor Wing Young Huie said about his Lake Street, USA project. Get friendly with people, go with them to their hang-outs. Have tea, a beer. Then ask for permission.

There’s been a lot of damage done to privacy in the last twenty years. We are full of newcomers, many of whom have suffered through profound terror. Their culture or religion may frown on photographs as a theft of sacred space.

My photographer friend Linda Gammell reminds me of a case that went to the Supreme Court–a street photographer charged with invasion of privacy by an orthodox Jew who insisted, “It’s against my religion to have my photograph taken.” Ultimately the highest court decided that a street is public space, and given this photographer’s body of excellent work, he did not constitute a threat to peace and security. Some may disagree.

How often photographs are used to demean and embarrass–think Facebook and postings of semi-nude photos of teens by their so-called friends. How often photographs diminish the vibrant flux that is a constant. We see glossy photos of penguins and think all is well with them. Ditto marine animals like manatees, severely endangered by run-off chemicals from Florida lawns. If we see a photograph, and the bird or mammal looks healthy, we do not question. We assume this is an accurate and enduring representation.

Photographs smooth and arrange what is rough, wild and uncouth. Holly Newton Swift’s painting show currently at the Macalester College Janet Wallace Fine Arts building is full of works that began as photographs. Holly tells us how she struggles to avoid replicating the photos, how she wants memory and mystery to take over from a simple rendition of what a camera has captured. What is truer, after all? A rendition of flux and rough ugliness or a deep woods photo where shots of sun fall through tall trees.

I love old photographs. They capture what was evanescent, and we know it’s gone. Bathed in the glow of nostalgia, the figures in these old photographs stare out at us like full-bodied ghosts, begging to be let back in on life. I miss them as if they belonged to my family. I itch to tell their stories.

But photographs of scenes I know intimately from daily walks strike me as reductions. They don’t carry my experience of layered memory and perspective–how I saw the snow yesterday, how a huge cottonwood shaded a back yard five years ago, how furious I was when it was cut down. How other years, trees retain their winter skeletons far too long. How already I’m longing for leaves, but accepting that “certain slant of light” which Emily Dickinson named as the oppression of fall. It’s oppression and strange antic joy.

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