In a close wooden shack - strewn with clothing and bedding, door open to the elements - a small family are seated, the mother looking down at her barely clothed toddler, while her son leans, sullen, against the mattress that is packed between the walls. There is, perhaps, an atmosphere of resistance in this image, the large bed forming a barrier that cuts across the composition and highlights the photographer's awkward presence in what is patently a cramped, private space. Both children turn their shoulders to the camera, as if rejecting the documentarian's gaze. One might equally argue, however, that Carl Mydans photograph – which occurs early in The Bitter Years - has a tender, if not essentially hopeful, undertone. Light streams in between the boards of the walls, lending the gentle mother figure a quite literal aura of calm, her softly inclined head recalling the Madonna figures of religious painting.
Whichever way you read the image, it is clear that human affect is at its centre, thematically and formally. Whether you see resilience or resistance, human responses to hardship are central to this and, indeed, to the majority of the photographs in The Bitter Years, a book which will appeal to all those with an interest in the work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) – the photographic archive of which documents a vast swathe of North American life during the worst years of the Great Depression - and its star photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. It is worth stressing this humanistic, even sentimentalising, emphasis, however, as this book is emphatically 'a,' rather than 'the,' history of the FSA and its archive.
In particular, The Bitter Years is the story of MoMA's seminal exhibition of the same title, curated by Edward Steichen and held in 1962, just after the photographer's tenure as Director of Photography at this institution had come to an end. As a lengthy note to the reader explains, the editors of this publication have gone to great lengths to reproduce the experience of the exhibition as closely as possible in book form, from reproducing marks and damage as they appear in the actual prints exhibited, to replicating Steichen's idiosyncratic, almost magazine-like, hang for the show. Steichen - as Arianne Pollet points out in one of the introductory essays to this book - was shaped as a curator by his experience in magazine publishing (he had been director of photography at both Vogue and Vanity Fair previous to joining MoMA) and his editorial training gave him a predilection for 'monumental installations that exploited the reproducibility, the theatricality and the flexibility of the photographic image.' This treatment gives the book, at least, a variety and readability that might not inhere in a more sombre, 'respectful' treatment of these images.
However, as Pollet and several other of the writers featured here point out, Steichen's 'monumentalizing' and emphatic vision works to the exclusion of many strands of the complete FSA archive (which comprises nearly 200,000 individual images, as opposed to the 208 shown here). He favoured portrait work to an overwhelming degree, excluding a great deal of landscape photography, for example, from 'The Bitter Years' exhibition. Nor was he afraid to manipulate his source material by reframing and cropping, as is illustrated by several, very interesting, 'before-and-after' shots included here.
Roy Stryker, another towering figure in the history of the FSA, had reservations about Steichen's selection, arguing that it placed 'too much emphasis on human suffering,' and you may find yourself occasionally questioning the relevance, and impact, of repeated portraits that take dignified, unquestioning economic and personal suffering as their implicit subject, however masterly they may be (Walker Evans' 'Alabama cotton tenant farmer wife'). However, one advantage of this book's emphasis on exhibition historiography and context, is that it attunes the reader to the historical circumstances in which these emotionally weighted photographs have been used (in Steichen's case, arguably as part of a near-propagandistic, institutional pro-war effort at the time of exhibition) and makes their reading a more carefully considered process.
It is also worth noting that the photographs collected here, whatever their bias, are beautiful; thoughtful and informative both. The 'Houses' section is a fascinating glimpse, not only into regional architecture and building skills, but into the bare compositional, bones of the architectural photograph. Many individual photos in the 'Sharecroppers' section of the book, such as Dorothea Lange's group shot of three female generations of a sharecropper family, provide startling psychological insight into family groups and transcend their strictly anthropological origins to communicate not only the character of families, but that of 'family' in straitened circumstances.
This publication marks the installation of 'The Bitter Years' as a permanent exhibit at Chateau d'Eau in Dudelange and is perhaps a tad reverential both of this event and its documentary origins. However, as an introduction to the work of the FSA and one of its greatest champions, it is an excellent and thought-provoking collection.
Faye Robson is an editor of illustrated books, currently based in London, UK. She has worked on photobooks for publishers including Aperture Foundation, New York and Phaidon Press, London, and writes a photo-blog called PLATE.