The Human Document

Two distinct halves comprise The Human Document, a photographic study of poverty at Warwick Art Centre’s Mead Gallery. The first and most compelling half contains one hundred black and white journalistic photographs of rural America from the 1930s and 1940s. The second half of the exhibition, meanwhile, attempts to contextualise the earlier portraits and landscapes for a contemporary audience – introducing more recent documentary-style photographs and videos from other cultures and from urban sites into its discursive frame.

It is significant that the earlier photographs were commissioned by the Farm Security Administration Programme (FSA), a controversial initiative that aimed to reduce Depression-era poverty within rural America via forced resettlement and the formation of government-owned farms. The number, scale and linear arrangement of the FSA photographs compound the emotive impact of their subjects. Walking from one intimate scene of domestic overcrowding, forced migration, agricultural failure, ecological disaster, abandoned machinery and discordantly hopeful advertising is quite distressing (even more so in light of this week’s political upheaval, the ramifications of which are only just beginning).

Arthur Rothstein, ‘Girl at Gees Bend’ April 1937

The FSA photographs, taken by such significant figures as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, were commissioned for publication in Life magazine. Produced to elicit an emotional response from its financially comfortable readers (and therefore a social change), the images have been criticised for their documentary approach and the truths they appear to tell. The images are part of a political agenda. As the subtitle to the exhibition notes, they are designed to persuade. Regardless of problems inherent within the commissioning and production processes, what are presented in the FSA photographs are real lives – impossibly difficult lives, and it is hard not to feel great sympathy for these individuals and to wonder what became of them. The overwhelming narrative is one of misery though a couple of exceptions in the final few images of the set show children smiling and a neighbourly outdoor gathering.

The Human Document’s more contemporary offering contains the work of an additional seven photographers including those externally commissioned to make work for a social-documentary context – Paul Graham, Sunil Gupta, Chris Killip – and those who took this mantle upon themselves – Richard Billingham, Susan Lipper, Eileen Perrier and Akram Zaatari. The inclusion of these works complicates and widens the debate but with results of varying quality and relevance. Billingham’s super-saturated and semi-comic family portraits from his Ray’s A Laugh series (1995) sit uneasily in the exhibition, while Killip’s depictions of Thatcher-era Tyneside and Northumberland feel particularly timely.

There is no doubt that the FSA photographs, though they are not without their own difficulties, remain powerfully and emotionally affective, cutting through the specificities of their original temporal context without any real need for contemporary supporting works. While one or two of the FSA images will be familiar, especially those by Lange, the majority of the selection have a raw impact that is scarily close to the photo-journalistic imagery seen in recent months of refugees moving through Europe and within other geo-political contexts. The FSA photographs offer startling and troubling documents that all too easily continue to resonate.

The Human Document: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day
7 October – 10 December 2016
Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre

Review published by Photomonitor, 13 November 2016