1910 - 1919 “The White Fence”, 1916 - Paul Strand.
This account seeks to understand Paul Strand’s “The White Fence” in the cultural, social, political and historical context of America at the time of it’s creation. By examining the world of 1910-1920 America, one can attempt to uncover meaning or influence in the artistic works of the period.
The early 1900’s were a turbulent time for the emerging Modern world. The industrialisation of the 1800’s had led to mass-migration from the countryside into cities in Europe and laterly in the US. Rapid advances in science and technology saw mankind establish a new level of dominance over the limits of the natural world. Engineers made mass transit a possibility with the invention of the railways, along with tunnels and bridges that made previously impossible journeys a reality for many people. Humans had also mastered flight, indeed by 1919 there had been a staged crossing of the Atlantic by plane. Scientists had proposed the theory of General Relativity (Einstein, 1905), Quantum Theory (Planck, 1900), discovered radiation and linked the world with transatlantic cables. New technology mechanised war with the invention of the machine gun in 1884 and of tanks in 1914, whilst medical science learned to develop vaccines, transfuse blood and use X-Rays.
Whilst the positive benefits of industrialisation were clear for others the experience was different. Poor conditions for women and children, urban squalor and a world fractured by war left millions displaced and disenfranchised. By 1920 around 27 million immigrants had arrived in the US in search of a better life (a third of this total arrived between 1910 and 1920). Against this backdrop of mass immigration, capitalism, industrialised America and global uncertainty, Paul Strand (from an immigrant family himself) began his education in photography under the tutelage of Lewis Hine. Socially conscious Hine was working on a project photographing immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and he “instilled in Strand a deep sense of commitment to the social betterment of humankind.” (metmuseum.org. 2004). This sense of social responsibility echoed throughout Strand’s life (he grew to be a committed socialist) and strongly influenced his future work in both film and photography.
Hine also introduced Strand to Alfred Stieglitz, who contributed enormously to the introduction of modern art into America through numerous exhibitions including the work of Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and the sculptor Rodin (Voorheis, 2004). Strand immersed himself in this new, modern art - especially the work of Cezanne and Picasso to such an extent that in 1916 he undertook a series of photographic experiments to enable him to understand "how you build a picture, what a picture consists of, how shapes are related to each other, how spaces are filled, how the whole thing must have a kind of unity." (Hambourg, p32. 1997). Whilst much of Strand’s early work was pictorialist in nature his experiments in 1916 saw him testing boundaries and questioning how he could use photography to respond to the modern art which influenced him.
“The White Fence” Strand’s 1916 photograph, is one of the results of his experiments in new ways of seeing through photography. It seems that Strand has de-constructed a typical rural scene, choosing to highlight a picket fence instead of the (more typical) larger picture. This alternative view of an otherwise normal subject has roots in Strand’s cubist influences. As photography began to replace traditional methods of painting, cubism sought to redefine the artists way of seeing the world - in a direct correlation The White Fence sets out to change the way photographs see the world. The image is also stark in contrast to Strand’s other work at the time, which concerned itself primarily with street portraits and the theme of movement within the city (metmuseum.org. 2004).
The White Fence is an example of an arts movement effecting the work of a photographer more normally concerned with socio-political image making. If cubism provided the inspiration for Strand to subvert the use of the camera to describe, then our second photograph can be seen as a clear reminder of the stark power of the documentary photograph.
1960 - 1969 “A boy protests segregated education (1966)”, Bob Adelman
Bob Adelman’s “A boy protests segregated education” (1966) has an immediate and clear meaning to the viewer, made emphatic by the placards on display in the image.
Any attempt to contextualise this photograph must begin with an understanding of the Civil Rights movement and its social and political implications. From the origins of American slavery in the late 16th Century to protests on the streets of America in the 1960’s; the African American story is one marked by oppression, degradation, contradiction and war. The modern Civil Rights movement can trace it’s roots back to 1807 and the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and in the United States.
Following the American Civil War a period of Reconstruction saw races mix in Southern politics and daily life, despite this apparent progress the “Jim Crow” laws enacted at the end of C19 saw black and white segregation made a reality. (Gould, 2001). Segregation argued that blacks and whites should exist separately, but equally - the reality was starkly different. Southern states contrived to prevent black people from voting: “..potential voters had to swear that they were white Democrats, the poll tax where a payment for voting was demanded, and the literacy test that compelled illiterate black and white voters to answer questions before being handed a ballot” (Gould, 2001).
Though the first half of C20 saw some progress for black Americans, culminating in President Truman’s desegregation of the US Armed Forces and racial segregation in schools being deemed unconstitutional, the US remained deeply split over the issue of race. Civil Rights dominated US domestic politics in the 1960’s. Martin Luthor King Jr and Malcolm X became prominent figures, spearheading both non-violent and violent protest - both men were great orators and both succeeded in galvanizing mass-support for their cause; by 1968 both King and X had been assassinated.
The 1960’s were a complicated time, besides the Civil Rights movement there were many other issues on the national agenda: John F Kennedy’s presidency was defined by the Cold War: the failed “Bay of Pigs” assault on Cuba, the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis (which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war) and the race to the moon. Before his assassination in 1963 the Kennedy administration was growing increasingly concerned by the rise of communism in South East Asia. In the wake of his death America was a nation in mourning - still divided along racial lines, on the brink of war in Vietnam and living in fear of the rise of communism.
Mass media had become a reality, television played a huge role in shaping public opinion, Kennedy’s performance in the first ever televised Presidential debates was cited as one of the major factors contributing to his success in the election and TV images opened people’s eyes to the horror of the Vietnam war. Folk music and protest songs provided a soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, while recreational drug use (pot and LSD) created a new kind of expanded conscience - personal expression permeated culture and counterculture. Women’s rights and female contraception saw the rise of a second wave of feminism, seeking to redress gender inequalities. The birth of pop culture, consumerism, increased personal freedom, flower power and free love stood in stark contrast to the ongoing Civil Rights and Vietnam issues.
In this postmodern period, the artistic community reacted to the world as it unfolded before them, pop artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein echoed the explosion of consumerism, appropriating and subverting familiar objects and imagery in order to question the perception of art. Pop Art often provided a visual counterpoint to the shocking reality of the decade’s troubles, it’s meanings and motives were often political. Motifs of repetition and subverted imagery represented the emotional detachment which artists like Warhol believed was a symptom of endless exposure to TV news and advertising. Minimalism on the other hand eliminated the ephemera of pop art and reduced the experience of art to simple colours and geometric shapes.
Regardless of the observations and reactions of the artistic community, the issues and politics of the sixties were visible to all. Like Lewis Hine half a century before, Bob Adelman was a photographer that understood the power of images in the fight against social injustice. By documenting the the civil rights struggle he was able to give a voice to the people he photographed. No single event or photograph was responsible for civil rights change in America, a continued and concerted effort of grass-roots protest and activism (documented by the likes of Adelman) allowed the US to observe their own hypocrisy, change was inevitable - the people, and the markets demanded it.
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Voorhies, James. "Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgl/hd_stgl.htm (October 2004)