In Search of the Pure Photograph : A Historiographic Study of the Farm Security Administration, Walker Evans, and the Survey Histories of Photography
Abstract: The photographic archive of the American New Deal agency Farm Security Administration (created 1935-1943) occupies an important place in the history of photography as an exemplar of documentary photography and as symbol of the Great Depression. This dissertation is a historiographic study of this narrative of FSA photography, which investigates the archive's monumental position in the historical narration and demonstrates other possible readings.The first chapter delineates the dominating tropes of the narrative: the importance of the photographers' collective effort, the idea of the photographs as a collective portrait of America, the fear of propaganda, and describes the FSA canon and iconography.The three following chapters construct other potential narratives about the archive. The first shows that while the regular FSA canon is limited to photographs of waywardness and misery in rural America, the archive also contains photographs of modernity and development. The second shows that these photographs of modernity have not been made part of the narrative since they are explicitly motivated by politics and thus could be considered propaganda. The third narrative shows the reception of the most famous FSA photographer, Walker Evans, to have its foundation in the same resistance towards propaganda and politics.The study thus demonstrates that FSA photography was so much more than what is narrated in the history of photography. The survey histories are formulated within a modernist discourse of art, from an ideal of the media specific: each medium should strive towards a purification of its own interior qualities. The history of photography is thus narrated as a history of photographers' exploration of the medium itself. In the case of the FSA, the result is a narrative which considers the photographers' quest for more images the only important thing, which describes their practice as neutral, apolitical and pure.
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