Summer and travel. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford to get out of the Cities, to the cabin or "up north," summer and travel make an unbeatable combination. Of course, camera phones and digital cameras come along for the ride. Looking at the Museum of Russian Art‘s current show of Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii’s work, it seems that photography and travel, too, make a hard-to-resist combination. This essay roams from photography to ideology and traveling: from Prokudin-Gorskii, who was "photographer to the Tsar" and a pinoeer of color photography (his Harvesting Tea in Georgia is the title image above); to the U.S. Works Progress Administration’s photography program in the 1930s and 1940s; to Alec Soth’s 2004 Sleeping by the Mississippi. Take a stroll through a century of photography.
But first, a note on traveling: Paul Bowles, in his novel The Sheltering Sky, notes that the important difference between tourists and travelers is that the former accept their own civilization without question; not so travelers, who compare it with the others, and reject those elements they find not to their liking. Tourists, in other words, are not looking to have their world changed. They want a story to tell, a quick souvenir, a snapshot. Travelers, on the other hand, want their minds blown wide open and to see in ways they have never seen before. Upon returning, the traveler will see with different eyes, will question what, before, has seemed a matter of course–and will select, reject, and embrace with a critical heart and mind. That is one of the lingering pleasures of traveling.
Photographers–those who "hunt" their images in the world at large rather than "farm" them in their studios–have long tended toward mobility. As early as 1909, Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii roamed through the Russian empire to document the vastness of the Tsar’s power, and the diversity of peoples having become, peacefully or not, part of this empire. Was Prokudin-Gorskii a tourist or a traveler? Can we tell from looking at his images–displayed, ingeniously, in custom-built light boxes at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA)?
As a court photographer, dependent on the Tsar’s good will and financial support, Prokudin-Gorskii was in no position to question his own civilization too much. His photographs of landscapes, emerging industry, architecture, and people were conceived as photographic surveys, while also serving as entertainment at the court, and, ultimately, as a tool to aggrandize his sponsor, Nicholas II: There are coal miners from the Ural mountains, tea harvesters from the shores of the Black Sea, the Emir of Bukhara in today’s Uzbekistan; cathedrals, cloisters–some of them destroyed during the Soviet period–and mosques along with the hovel of a Siberian settler; there are images of budding cities, rivers that show the signs of early industrial development, and a traditional nomadic household, with a family gathered in a yurt (see image below). The range of subject matter, of distinct cultures under the tsarist empire, is amazing–as is the technical process Prokudin-Gorskii developed to produce these early color images.
Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii, Family in Yurt. Digichromatography.
Each image was taken three times, in quick succession, using a red, green, and blue filter (not unlike today’s RGB filters in various software applications). The images were stored on glass plates, and displayed by a special projector with three lenses. Prokudin-Gorskii’s camera was of his own design and, while TMORA’s curator clearly went to great lengths to explain the technical details, the mystery remains of how exactly the apparatus looked and worked. Equally hard to imagine is how exactly Prokudin-Gorskii managed to leave the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 with so many glass plates in tow, since nothing of artistic value was officially allowed to leave the country (unless it directly benefited Stalin’s industrialization plans of the 1920s). Only recently, the images that are now stored at the Library of Congress have become more accessible through a process called digichromatography. But enough said already about the technicalities involved.
Prokudin-Gorskii seems to have considered himself a scientist, as his quasi-anthropological approach to conducting photographic surveys of specific geographic regions suggests. Today, he appears as an artist–a chemist, originally–who made a living by dazzling the Tsar with his images in order to practice his art. (Although in those days, photography’s status as art was still contested.) Nicholas II not only provided him with access to restricted regions of his empire, but paid for a specially equipped railway car for Prokudin-Gorskii’s travels between 1909 and 1912, and again in 1915. The photographer’s journeys, then, were official business of the Russian empire. But, troubling as that may seem, for centuries that is precisely how artists earned a living: namely, funded by a wealthy sponsor whose politics they were expected to support in their work. But there is another layer of ideology at work here that resides in the very genre of documentary photography: Are these images true? And if so, in what sense?
The seriousness of Prokudin-Gorskii’s subjects leaves no doubt about the fact that they knew they were being photographed. After all, they had to hold very, very still while the three different exposures were happening…and whatever or whoever was not absolutely still, now appears discolored or blobby–the smoke from a factory chimney, cows off in a field, a girl among the tea harvesters who could not keep her head still (see image above). At the very least, the act of photography interrupted whatever was going on before the photographer arrived and before he inspired the subjects to strike poses they might never have adopted had it not been for the photographer’s authority and insistence. We simply cannot know. But given the authority that comes from authenticity, this is not an irrelevant question.
Roughly two decades after Prokudin-Gorskii’s far-reaching travels, the U.S. government hired hundreds of photographers to roam the countryside and urban areas alike to document American culture and American lives at this historic juncture. The photographers hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) included such (now famous) figures as Berenice Abbot, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein. The point of the program was ostensibly twofold: to provide a means of earning a living for artists suffering from the economic effects of the Great Depression and, secondly, to foster the creation of a national culture. The photographers, in other words, were driven by the need to earn a living and find a means to practice their art–not unlike Prokudin-Gorskii, whose ambitious surveys were made possible only by the Tsar’s support–and engage in what amounts to a curiously self-conscious construction of national culture. The images they set out to capture had to serve a specific, WPA-approved purpose: namely, to allow people to see themselves in them, to identify with the subjects in the photos, and to imagine a national community…hardly an ideologically innocent task.
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California,1936.
Technically, all the photographs taken for the WPA were government property, official documents, not, strictly speaking, art. Their point was to create an "accurate and faithful chronicle in photographs of America." When Dorothea Lange re-worked the now iconic image of
the migrant mother, eliminating some intruding fingers on a tent pole, she was, as Sally Stein writes, fired from the program for tampering with government property. The program administrators’ priorities did not lie with artistic or aesthetic value; what they did care about were truth and authenticity. This line proved difficult to walk, though. As Susan Sontag observes in On Photography, photographers "would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film–the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry." Of course, photography always involves selection and thus subjectivity–but the appeal of the documentary and hence putatively truthful quality of the medium has proven highly resilient to such insight. In the case of the WPA photographers, not only their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, geometry–and race–entered into the images, but the production of a national culture was at stake. Ideology loomed large.
Do these roaming artists qualify as travelers in Paul Bowles’ sense? Individually, they may have tried to question their own civilization and cultural comfort zone as they encountered differences within the American experience, such as the rampant poverty resulting from the early days of capitalism. As a program, though, the WPA sponsored photographer-tourists, whose efforts to create a national consciousness through their lenses did not easily lend themselves to critical questions.
Then what happened? Simplistically put, in Russia, the ethnic variety Prokudin-Gorskii had photographed was suppressed in favor of the proletariat. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union were people allowed to return to ethnically distinctive cultural practices. In the United States, on the other hand, the rise of the middle class led to the American Dream’s putatively classless society, where each individual is free to pursue his or her dream. No one, it seemed, wanted to identify as working class anymore in a meritocratic society, and only euphemisms of white and blue collars (along with rednecks) persisted, in a slightly off-key version of red, white, and blue. Now, in 2008, statistics tell us the U.S. American middle class is shrinking and the economy troubled. In fact, comparisons to the Great Depression creep up with disturbing regularity in news reports.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts chose this summer to exhibit Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, a body of work first shown in 2004 and comprised of 46 prints. Twenty-three of the prints were on display at the MIA, which acquired a complete set in December of 2007. (The show closed on August tenth but the images can still be seen on Soth’s website.) To access the work aurally, I highly recommend listening to Paul Robeson’s 1936 recording of "Old Man River," unconcerned with petty human worries–growing food, avoiding pain and dodging prison, dealing with daily toil and racial inequalities–the river just keeps rolling along. While the singer dreams of leaving the river and all it stands for, including his "white man boss," in favor of the River Jordan, the mighty Mississippi flows untroubled, dreamless, with an inevitable force greater than all human aspirations. It does not promise deliverance or redemption, just impassivity in the face of human yearnings, religiosity, and dreams. The themes of the song still resonate, as the river continues to serve as a powerful trope in the cultural imagination of this country, and one by one, they make their appearance in Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi.
In a digital era, an age of seemingly limitless reproducibility, Soth’s purposefully labor-intensive and slow process may seem like an anachronism. But the work thrives on such practical, conceptual, and visual contrasts: the frozen, white stillness of a Minnesota lake with a houseboat is offset by the bright red of laundry hung out to dry. (Evocative, even suggestive colors-yet from a practical point of view: who hangs laundry out to dry in freezing temperatures? It does not dry; it freezes.) The landscapes–riverbanks, big skies, prison farms–dwarf the people in them and collide with the unguarded intimacy of the portraits hung next to them. In Lenny, Minneapolis, Minnesota, the bulky physiques of the subject and his Rottweiler are juxtaposed with kitschy decorative plates mounted on the wall behind them. The brightly lit gas station in the foreground almost renders the dark cemetery behind it invisible in Cemetery, Fountain City, Wisconsin, 2002. The orange overalls of a prison work crew brighten the pale patriotism of the Memorial Cross at Fort Jefferson, complete with flag, grey sky, and an almost invisible river. Conceptually, the suggestions of mobility–the waterway, the railroad, the transformations of the ordinary into the quasi-iconic worked by dreams and the creative process, Soth’s own travels up and down the mighty river–collide with images of immobility and stuck-ness: in prison, in prostitution, even in the Black character fixed in wax.
Alec Soth. Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross, Wickliffe, Kentucky, 2002.
The river, though metaphorically big enough to contain all of these contrasts, appears only on the periphery, if at all. From its snowy beginnings, it meanders through the photographs into the muggy expanse of its delta in the deep South. The water’s grey fades imperceptibly into the sky, suggesting a vastness that visually echoes the profound indifference of old man river. The subjects of Soth’s photographs seem to have absorbed some of that indifference. They pose with a fatalist air that suggests, at times melancholic acceptance, at times weary defiance of judgmental eyes. Most of all, these mid-American dreamers look resigned to their fate. What could be more at odds with the mystique of the American Dream–which is, after all, a dream of mobility, whether social or geographical–than this melancholic fatalism?
The only person enjoying the privilege of mobility in Sleeping by the Mississippi is the photographer himself. His role, vis-à-vis Bowles’ distinction between traveler and tourist remains unclear, mostly because of the question of ownership: How far exactly do we have to travel in order to become tourists? Where does our own civilization or culture end? When do we begin to count as strangers? In one, slightly heavy-handed print–Dallas City, Illinois, 2002–Soth shows us a novel, entitled Vaganbond Path, placed on a windowsill–the classically liminal space between the inside and outside, positively pregnant with meaning, suggesting perhaps, that he is neither traveler nor tourist but a romantic vagabond instead.
Soth is said to be working in the tradition of documentary photography (which once again does not fail to occupy that troubling space between "the facts" of reality, the selective eye of the photographer, the poses–not spontaneous snapshots–of the subjects, and the rigorous editing of the images). Unlike the work of Prokudin-Gorskii and the WPA photographers, his work is not overtly and explicitly ideological. It is also much more focused geographically. But like his WPA predecessors, his images run the risk of becoming iconic–which is an ambivalent compliment, at best: "Whatever reality its subject first poss
essed has been drained away and the image become an icon," laments Paula Rabinowitz in They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary. But perhaps it is precisely this draining of reality that makes the images so appealing to us–and so successful in the marketplace that is contemporary art.
It is at this juncture that ideology, travel, and photography intersect once more. Soth may pay attention to the conventionally shunned–prisoners, prostitutes, and proselytizers–but he renders them so beautifully that even the most troubling appear transformed, iconic in their own right, not so much drained of reality as represented in a different kind of reality where we can see–and imagine–them anew. A seductive proposition, no doubt. And yet, there is something troubling here, a potential for misunderstanding: This transformation of reality also seems to entail a transformation of the strictly documentary into something else–a fiction posing as a truth.
What does his work tell us about the time and place where Soth, as an artist without a government paycheck, becomes wildly successful based on this body of work? If Sleeping by the Mississippi reveals anything it is that, at a time when the American Dream fades into grey disenchantment for a disappointed middle class, people still hunger for the kinds of images that give meaning to their experiences. But the point is no longer identification and shared misery to be overcome through collective or communal struggle. This body of work is no record of the people for the people, but a rare collection of expensive prints, to be shown in the quiet exclusivity of an art museum, where, apparently, we want our truths to look like fiction and our fictions like truth.
Acknowledgment: ARP! (Art Preview and Review) has kindly granted me permission to use my review of Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, scheduled to appear in ARP’s fall issue, as material for this longer essay.