Erskine Caldwell & Margaret Bourke-White, You Have Seen Their Faces

One of the first books to come out of the depression era documentary movement was this book. I found a lot of the pages published online here.

Although the images are displayed with captions that seem to be direct quotes from the protagonists, I found out that the authors penned the words themselves and merely used the device of quotation marks to create the fictional voices: “The legends under the pictures are intended to express the authors’ own conception of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these people” (Caldwell, from the introduction to the 1937 edition, cited in Rice 2001, p 18), but this of course means that the people are quoted as “saying things they never said” (Stott 1986, p 221) since the audience still equate the quote with the person pictured, it is almost impossible not to, even when you know that the captions were invented by Caldwell!

The book basically provided a platform for southern-born Caldwell to air his views on the South: “The documentary was a devastating broadside on Southern delinquencies. Right from the opening paragraph, Caldwell began painting an image of the South as a benighted region.” (Snyder 1986, p 393). This is the opening paragraph:

The South has always been shoved around like a country cousin. It buys mill-ends and it wears hand-me-downs. It sits at second-table and is fed short-rations. It is the place where the ordinary will do, where the makeshift is good enough. It is that dogtown on the other side of the railroad tracks that smells so badly every time the wind changes. It is the Southern Extremity of America, the Empire of the Sun, the Cotton States; it is the Deep South, Down South; it is The South.” (cited in Maxwell 1938, pp 237-238)

From Robert E Snyder, Spying on Southerners: The FBI and Erskine Caldwell: “He proceeded to expose and condemn a variety of southern shortcomings: illiteracy, disease, and malnutrition, racial prejudice, religious bigotry, a worn-out agricultural system based on sharecropping and peonage, and cultural sterility. He placed the blame for these delinquencies on a repressive and exploitative hierarchy of politicians, planters, and preachers, and called for the federal government to devise programs and policies to ameliorate the lives of Dixie’s forgotten people.” (Snyder 1988, p 257) The people from the South were compared to those from the North, many of whom had cars, on the other hand, as Caldwell said in an interview: “The poor whites in the South didn’t have anything . .. They were stuck.” Which is why the book collaboration was used by the Soviet Union in propaganda about how abject the American citizens were, rather than the film version of Grapes of Wrath, which showed migrant workers owned automobiles! (Snyder 1988, p 281)

Caldwell’s detractors claimed that he was lying, but he always maintained that his stories were artistic inventions that conveyed “the forceful illusion of life”, his goal was not revolutionary, but rather to shock or shame the public (bourgeois classes) into acknowledging their moral obligation to take action on behalf of those suffering. The book was Caldwell’s brainchild, and he wanted to conduct a “factual study of people in the cotton states living in economic stress” and as such he had even decided upon the title the book would eventually bear (McDonald, p 65).

It has also been pointed out that the images themselves are rather bleak and despairing, Bourke-White had no intention of ennobling her subjects or evoking solidarity with them. In fact, quite the opposite, she approached them with a kind of condescension even disdain:

…equally effective photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White […] showed that stunted, starved individuals were not products of Caldwell’s fictional imagination, but that deformity, disease, and desperation actually existed extensively in the South.” (Snyder 1988, p 258)

What this meant was that not only the authors’ point of view was reinforced, but also readers’ assumptions were corroborated, as Shelley Rice notes, by “deliberately emphasizing the distress of their subjects, they confirmed popular perceptions about the miserable lives of those below the poverty line and played on political attitudes and emotions already responsive to the New Deal” (2001, p 18). In other words, the political point was stressed through the combination of image-caption, in spite of Caldwell’s disclaimer.

“Unlike other documentary photographers, Bourke-White did not approach her subjects with the assumption that they were noble, and though her people were victims of circumstance, she did not celebrate their ways of coping with their plights. Instead, she pitied the cultural forms they took,” (Peeler 1987, p 104). Peeler goes on to observe how although Bourke-White enjoyed the excitement of black Christian worship, likening it to tribal ritual, she viewed their enthusiasm as a “feeble expression of a people who had no other means of fulfilling themselves” since they didn’t have access to movies and books and other items that she saw as essential for any civilized people to own (ibid p 104).

In contrast to the dignified folk struck by hard times in the FSA work, these photographs and captions were basically telling the viewer that the subjects portrayed deserved pity and help because they lacked the intelligence and ability to help themselves! There was no nobility in Bourke-White’s lens filter; as Peeler wrote: “Lange believed the camera should not prey upon people who had lost their pride, but Bourke-White had no such compunctions and willingly rendered her subjects as grotesques riddled with poverty and disease” (ibid, p 69) While Caldwell’s carefully chosen words echo that view, and humiliate the subjects even further:

The captions quote people saying things they never said,” while making them “as abject as possible” (Stott 1986, p 221). Once you realise that these weren’t the actual words of the subjects portrayed, it really adds insult to injury! It is clear that the words are being put into the subjects’ mouths since the verbal and pictorial content do overlap: “The captions, like the rest of the book, reduce the lives and consciousness of the tenant farmers to force the audience to pity them. The subjects say either ‘Look at me, how wretched my life is,’ or ‘Look at me, my life is so wretched I don’t even know it‘” (ibid, p 221).

Stott wrote of Bourke-White’s denigrating attitude to her sitters, and how he believes she exploited or misrepresented them to promote her own vision or agenda:

We have seen how Bourke-White made her subjects’ faces and gestures say what she wanted them to. And what she wanted to say is blatant on every page. Faces of defeat, their eyes wizened with pain-or large, puzzled, dazzled, plaintive; people at their most abject: a ragged woman photographed on her rotted mattress, a palsied child, a woman with a goiter the size of a grapefruit; twisted mouths (ten of them), eyes full of tears. These people are bare, defenseless before the camera and its stunning flash. No dignity seems left them: we see their meager fly-infested meals, their soiled linen; we see them spotlit in the raptures of a revival meeting, a woman’s arms frozen absurdly in the air; we see a preacher taken in peroration, his mouth and nostrils open like a hyena’s.” (Stott 1986, p 220)

In her autobiography, Bourke-White has a different recollection of her attitude:

“I had never seen people caught helpless like this in total tragedy. They had no defense. They had no plan. They were numbed like their own dumb animals, and many of these animals were choking and dying in drifting soil. I was deeply moved by the suffering I saw and touched particularly by the bewilderment of the farmers. I think this was the beginning of my awareness of people in a human, sympathetic sense as subject for the camera…” (B-W, Portrait of Myself, p 110)

Apparently she was on assignment for Fortune in 1934 when she was inspired by the ‘faces engraved with the paralysis of despair’. When she returned to her New York studio, after an apocryphal epiphany when photographing a fake rubber tyre and someone intrepidly suggested they use a real one, she was a changed woman:

“To what extent are photographers becoming aware of the social scene and how significantly are their photographs portraying it? … The major control is the photographer’s point of view. How alive is he? Does he know what is happening in the world? How sensitive has he become during the course of his own photographic development to the world-shaking changes in the social scene about him?” (V Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White 1986, pp 156-7)

It’s almost hard to believe that she wasn’t headhunted by Stryker and the FSA!

Goldberg is B-W’s apologist, going on to describe how the photographer took a “…kind of posed candid shot in which she retained her own control but gave her subjects leave to let theirs go.” (Goldberg, p 169) possibly this is a result of working with Caldwell, who in Bourke-White’s own words:

… had a very quiet, completely receptive approach. He was interested not only in the words a person spoke, but in the mood in which they were spoken. He would wait patiently until the subject had revealed his personality, rather than impose his own personality on the subject, which many of us have a way of doing.” (B-W, 1963, p 125)

If we read only her version, it becomes apparent that she was at least moved by the situation at hand:

Here with the sharecroppers, I was learning that to understand another human being you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what he is…. I realized that any photographer who tries to portray human beings in a penetrating way must put more heart and mind into his preparation than will ever show in any photograph.” (BW, p 134-6)

But I hope that it does show in the photographs, Margaret, and I really believe that when they are well done it really does!


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