Most photographs are taken to document a simple fact. Here is what the hurricane did. Here I am on the beach in Puerto Rico. Here is where the crime happened. Here is the class of 1943. Here is the company’s new assembly plant.
But every photograph even ones taken for the most commonplace reasons represents a series of negotiations. There’s the initial negotiation between photographer and subject, followed by ones between photographer and equipment, light and shadow, motion and stillness. Finally, of course, no matter how fixed or permanent an image may seem, there’s the negotiation that’s always ongoing, always inconclusive and in flux: the meeting between image and viewer, a negotiation for meaning.
Two concurrent but otherwise unrelated shows of archival photographs in Atlanta demonstrate how images taken primarily to document simple facts often show an interesting tension: A documentary image can intrigue us precisely because of the unexpected aesthetic considerations evident in its creation.
Southern Industrial Landscapes: Photographs of the Marietta Bell Bomber Plant, 1942 – 1944, at Kennesaw State University’s Athenaeum Gallery presents images of the Bell Bomber Plant’s immense industrial facilities in Marietta, Georgia, made by members of the corporation’s photography department [January 17 – June 21, 2013]. Homecoming: African-American Family History in Georgia at the Hammonds House Museum, on loan from the archives of the Auburn Avenue Research Library [February 2-April 28, 2013], offers archival images of black family and everyday life beginning with the early days of photography and leading to the present.
The question of intent is always a nebulous one. The photographers whose work is on display here probably never intended their work to be framed in the context of art to undergo the rigorous, detached sort of scrutiny that viewers bring to a gallery but beyond that speculation it’s impossible to know the tastes, the aesthetics, the humor, the level of art-history knowledge, of an anonymous photographer hired to photograph a factory or a grammar school class. But it’s fair to assume that anything we see in a photograph is intended no matter how unknowable and unarticulated an anonymous artist’s intent must remain. Photography is an art of this, not that: something is either in the frame or it is not, and the photographer is the one who selects. Why do photographs of a factory have a hauntingly abstract quality? Why has the anonymous photographer of an unidentified African-American couple in 1890 asked his subjects to pose in the stiff, formal postures of the time and then seemingly chosen to snap the picture at the precise moment when the wife’s eyes turn nervously, uncomfortably, tenderly toward her husband? There are numerous possible explanations but no fixed one.
The Bell Bomber photographs primarily have a sense of forward-looking order, efficiency, prosperity, precision, and military prowess. But a haunting, abstract emptiness resides in the careful, measured, and principled documentation of the plant’s clean, futuristic lines and its ocean of concrete, as well. It’s an aesthetic that’s very much in contrast to the post-Depression Southern farmland and piney wood occasionally shown to surround the plant, or to a sky full of explosively dramatic cloud formations that dominate a photo of the Southeast Building. The aforementioned predictive glance to the future proved accurate: Return to the same area now and nearly everything there looks like the Bell Bomber plant.
Human figures are mostly absent from the photographs an indistinct few who may be there by chance or to lend scale can be seen in the distance giving the buildings a sense of inhuman size. The same quality gives the pictures one visible person identified only as female employee an odd and intriguing sort of prominence and mystery. She is at once pretty, slim, smiling, and stylish as she casually leans against a wall on a roof and gazes at a vast, empty concrete courtyard. Throughout the pictures, there is the sense of a controlled aesthetic dutifully exploring the strange geometries of this new environment amid excitement and foreboding.
Photography has often been used as documentary evidence, and it was often used by the empowered to document African-Americans presumed wickedness or inferiority. The efforts of the mostly anonymous photographers in the Homecoming series stand apart from such propagandistic uses by defiantly documenting family bonds, individual lives, and personalities. Small details pop out students in a first-grade class at the Roach Street School in Atlanta in 1895 stand in stiff formation and wear starched, uncomfortable-looking clothes. The children have such regimented, even frightened, expressions. Is their teacher, clearly of the no-nonsense sort, to blame? Or perhaps the long exposure time of early photography? The teacher stands to one side, the back of one hand on her hip, her expression proud and severe. The children are documented as a collection of subjects, the obedient receptacles for discipline and education, but it’s infinitely touching that our eyes are almost immediately drawn to two girls in front, their heads leaning tenderly against each other.
The figure of the undertaker is a complicated one in traditional African-American culture. Someone of enormous respect and authority within the black community, the undertaker was often a person of education and wealth, performing important professional duties (Who doesn’t recognize the status, through inevitability, of the undertaker?) at a time when there were few such opportunities available to African-American men. But an undertaker was also somewhat isolated (Who wants to hang out with the undertaker?) due to the nature of his work. An anonymous photographer’s eye catches so much in the portrait of John L. Barnum Sr., an undertaker in Americus, Georgia, where his picture was made around 1917. We see his prominence suggested by the volumes of paperwork piled on his desk, but the empty desk beside him speaks volumes of a different sort. The photographer has included vast space above Barnum’s head (with his sensitive and youthful, but no longer young, face looking out at us), and we can just see into the darkened back room on the right, not enough to make out details but enough for our imaginations to venture there, to think of the work that goes on in that room. Through the depiction of Barnum’s beautiful, folded hands in the same peaceful pose we might see composed on a body in a coffin we grasp that a respected yet awkward and solitary man such as this is likely to be the one who someday assumes the duties of guiding us through rooms like these.
The portrait was probably taken for a very prosaic purpose and never intended to hang in an art context, but the sense of curiosity and connection it arouses is the same that lies at the heart of any great aesthetic experience. What is art if it’s not this: an ongoing, unanswerable sort of curiosity, a quiet tracing of the complex threads in the web connecting viewer, artist, subject, present and past?