There cannot be many photographic books in which the captions have generated as much critical interest as the pictures themselves. Margaret Bourke White & Erskine Caldwell’s 1930’s survey of the American South – You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) – is the exception that proves the rule. The authors (in)famously chose to compose fictional ‘statements’ that appeared to belong to, or comment on, those pictured: ‘The legends under the pictures,’ they wrote, are intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these people.’ so, a photograph of an elderly black woman was accompanied by the line – ‘I reckon I forgot to remember how old I is.’ Another black woman, pictured eating a watermelon, ‘says’ – ‘I got more children now than I know what to do with, but they keep coming along like watermelons in the summertime.’ And a Mississippi man remarks, of his flood-ruined shack, ‘Doggone if I don’t like it better the way it is now.’

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Whatever offence such comments might provoke today, on publication in 1937 the book enjoyed popular success and critical acclaim. ‘The quotations printed beneath the photographs,’ noted one reviewer, ‘are exactly right.’ Such an assessment was by no means unanimous though, nor was it to prevail for long. The book could not comfortably endure scrutiny; and a subsequent critical consensus has held that the work is compromised by an authorial approach described variously as condescending, manipulative or racist .

It might be thought that the work was beyond critical rehabilitation, but Jeff Allred’s new publication – American Modernism and Depression Documentary - proposes a reading that suggests a more complex appraisal. Allred’s subject is the documentary books of the 1930‘s, a period in which the genre acquired unprecedented visibility and status. In particular he focuses on three titles – Bourke-White & Caldwell’s; James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; and Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices – books which he claims revise or disturb the conventions of documentary expression.

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from You Have Seen Their Faces, Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, 1937

He argues that while the documentary photo book (until the 1930’s) had traditionally valorised readily legible content that delivered a securely defined – albeit problematic – subject to a designated (middle class) audience, during the Depression era certain examples of the genre worked to problematise, disrupt, or render opaque, the dominant predicates and mode of address of such work. This is the sense in which some titles can be described as modernist. To a degree, this might appear counterintuitive; indeed, the certainties, popularity and accessibility of documentary realism (or realism tout court) are more often regarded as antonymic to the perceived difficulties and intransigencies typical of modernist, supposedly antirealist, strategies.

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from You Have Seen Their Faces, Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, 1937

To return to You Have Seen Their Faces, Allred cast doubts on the putative spontaneity and authenticity of any quotations commonly used in documentary surveys, before examining some of Bourke-White and Caldwell’s more ambivalent invented ‘statements’. For instance, a photograph of a class of black Arkansas school children is accompanied by the line – ‘And so the fairy godmother turned all the little white girls into princesses’. Or, an unpeopled picture of a shack plastered with advertising posters is captioned: ‘Of course I wouldn’t let them plaster signs all over my house, but it’s different with those shacks the niggers live in.’ Allred’s point being that at these moments the book deprives its white, middle class, metropolitan readership of a stable, uncontested position from which to consume the book’s conflicted contents.
 
Further, Allred remarks on the deliberate inclusion in the text of elements that highlight, and destabilise the itinerant authors’ own project and motives: Caldwell writes that ‘Scientists with microscopes and theologians with Bibles come to the South to tell it what is wrong with it…Gaping tourists come to pick its flesh to pieces…’ And finally Allred points to the extraordinary disconnect between the Caldwell’s closing lines – optimistic resolved and reassuring – and Bourke-White’s accompanying photos – grim, ironic and confrontational. Again the point is made that the discomfiting, contradictory and alienating demands made by modernist works are also to be found in certain documentary examples. This need not surprise us. After all, modernism at its most challenging – far from being opposed to realism – was arguably a form of it, albeit one that sought a means adequate to the radically fissured social landscape it strove to represent.

American Modernism and Depression Documentary – Jeff Allred (OUP £40)