part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7 | part 8

“ What’s documentary about photography?:
From directed to digital photojournalism ”

by John Mraz


Still lifes

Though (re)constructing narrative living landscapes has been the staple expression of directed photojournalism, the act of arranging and rearranging still lifes has also provided instances worthy of commentary. One famous example is the still life that has come to be known as “The Rearranged Corpse” of the U.S. Civil War. In July of 1863, Alexander Gardner was working with his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, photographing the Gettysburg battlefield. There, they evidently came across the body of a Confederate soldier lying in the grass where he had fallen when killed while advancing up a hill; both Gardner and O’Sullivan photographed him in that spot.

In his 1866 work, A Photographic Sketch Book of the War, Gardner titled this image, “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep,” and implied that this was a Federal soldier. After making three exposures of the corpse where they originally found him, the photographers were apparently inspired by the imagistic possibilities of a sharpshooter’s position some forty yards away, built up by Confederate snipers in “Devil’s Den.” This offered an ideal location for photographing, as the embankment of flat stones made into a wall between two boulders provided a wonderfully textured backdrop. No bodies happened to be found in the pictorial setting, so Gardner had the soldier laid on a blanket, and carried forty yards uphill to “Devil’s Den,” where he was deposited against the photogenic background (Frassanito). The photographers placed the rifle against the rock wall to draw the viewer’s eyes to its contours, and turned the corpse’s head to face the camera.

Moving the body about cannot have been an easy or pleasant task: Marianne Fulton notes that the identical postures of the limbs indicate that it was probably in a state of rigor mortis, and “shows signs of advancing decomposition.” The corpse must have been difficult to manipulate and, on a hot July day, rather odorous; but burial operations were drawing to a close and this may have been one of the last bodies available. In his book, Gardner titled the image made in Devil’s Den (actually taken by O’Sullivan), “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,” and placed it immediately after “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep,” thus constructing a face-off between the armies, based on the falsehood that the first had been a Northerner, and that they were two different men.

The FSA produced its share of directed still lifes, and the furor aroused by one reveals, once again, how much we believe photographs. Arthur Rothstein was working in the South Dakota Badlands during 1936, when he discovered a “prop” that placed him at the center of political polemics. As he later recalled, “I found a sun-bleached skull and photographed it against the cracked earth… I took many pictures and then moved the skull about 10 feet to a grassy spot near some cactus where I could get another effect” (Rothstein 1961). Rothstein contends that the five exposures he made of the skull in different places resulted from “experiments” with textures and shadows. However, opponents of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs took exception to what they considered government propaganda, and a North Dakota newspaper labeled the image “a wooden nickel.”

Controlled by conservative corporations, the U.S. press was largely opposed to Roosevelt, and reporters unearthed all the negatives Rothstein had made of the skull. A scandal ensued, and the Resettlement program was attacked by many publications as a “ghastly fake” (Curtis). A powerful symbol of drought and death later acquired by art museums, Rothstein’s images of the cow skull entered into history as an example of “manipulation.” Its notoriety was such that fifteen years later, in 1951, Rothstein’s photographs were waved about on the Senate floor as Republicans cynically defended the infamous hoax concocted by the McCarthy forces in creating a composite photograph of Senator Millard Tydings and Earl Browder, the head of the U.S. Communist Party.

Beyond the immediate motivations of politicians, the “skull” images have become a lightening rod in discussions about documentary. Thus, in one of the finest studies on 1930s culture, William Stott contrasted Rothstein’s strategy with that of Walker Evans. Stott argues that the term “documentary” had a very specific connotation for Evans, which allowed for no intervention whatsoever:

Documentary, he says, is “stark record.” Any alteration or manipulation of the facts, for propaganda or other reasons, he considers “a direct violation of our tenets.” He was shocked when his FSA colleague Arthur Rothstein was found to have moved the cow’s skull, because “that’s where the word ‘documentary’ holds: you don’t touch a thing. You ‘manipulate,’ if you like, when you frame a picture-one foot one way or one foot another. But you’re not sticking anything in.” For Evans, documentary is actuality untouched….

Stott’s argument articulately embodies the classical perception of documentary photography. Unfortunately, as the torchbearer for unmanipulated recording of reality, Walker Evans comes up a bit short. James Curtis compared Evans’ images with the detailed descriptions provided by James Agee, his coauthor of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and revealed how Evans rearranged the houses of the tenant farmer families, while they were working in the fields, in order to construct harmonious scenes of dignified poverty. Hence, in an image of the bedroom, he apparently pushed a bed out from the wall to create a diagonal form that crosses like a sash from the top left to the bottom right, and he removed a dirty white suit which hung disconcertingly from the wall.

In another, the photographer evidently cleaned the kitchen table of the clutter of dishes which had been set on it in the morning by the family, leaving only an oil lamp that gracefully reflects the light; in the background, Evans placed a butter churn to resonate visually with the lamp, despite the fact that this valuable object would not have been placed in such danger within a house occupied by small children. The still lifes rearranged by Evans created a different world than that inhabited by the farmers; he photographed picturesque order instead of the tumbledown chaos in which they lived. James Agee reflected at one point, “The reason I love the camera is just this…. It is…unlike any other leverage of art, incapable of recording anything but absolute, dry truth” (Agee and Evans). Being neither entirely truthful nor at all dry, the esthetic fabrications of Evans gave the lie doubly to his partner’s notion of photography.


part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7 | part 8