20 March 2010

Speaking of Prizes ~ Linda Gordon Wins Bancroft Prize

Historian Linda Gordon, according to this report, has won the Bancroft Prize for her terrific biography of Dorothea Lange. I noted the imminent appearance of the book last summer and have since read it. Two points that Gordon highlights in her discussion of how Lange helped invent documentary photography seem important to me.

The first is that Lange came to documentary work from a successful career as a portrait photographer. Gordon suggests that she democratized the practice of portraiture by photographing working people with the same artistry and technique she had used on her wealthy clients. Conversely, Gordon stresses that Lange quite consciously came to focus her 'documentary' photographs on individuals because she believed that that was the most effective way to generate an active political response in viewers.

The second point is that Roy Stryker - Lange's boss when she worked for the FSA - contributed to the gerrymandering of photography into "art" and "documentary" mostly for partisan political and bureaucratic reasons. "He could not justify his budget if the funds went toward creating art . . . To repel political attacks, he had to ban 'artifice' in the making of photographs ...". So, just as Walker Evans and his allies were campaigning to establish the claims of photography as art, Stryker was actively creating the contrasting category of documentary. That dichotomy, which I think is more or less wholly unsustainable, continues to haunt - and hinder - discussion of photography and its uses today.

In any case, the Gordon book is a useful and insightful read. I highly recommend it!

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