restricted access Modernist Documentary: Aaron Siskind's Harlem Document
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Modernist Documentary:
Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document

I. Introduction

In his essay “The Author as Producer,” originally given as an address in 1934 at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris, Walter Benjamin warns of the capacity of the dominant regime of cultural production to incorporate and de-politicize potentially radical materials and impulses. “[T]he bourgeois apparatus of production,” Benjamin argues, “can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it, into question.” As an example of the power of the hegemonic regime to subsume and transfigure potentially subversive materials into a confirmation of the dominant order, Benjamin cites trends in contemporary photography, which he argues have aestheticized images of dire poverty, turning representations of social inequality and oppression into artifacts of artistic appreciation and contemplative pleasure. The school of “New Objectivity” photography, Benjamin asserts, has become “ever more nuancé, ever more modern, and the result is that it can no longer depict a tenement block or a refuse heap without transfiguring it.” This highly refined mode of photography “has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment.” 1

Echoing the thrust of Benjamin’s critique of German photography, recent criticism of 1930s American documentary photography, particularly the images compiled under the auspices of the Federal Government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), has argued that such photography “effaced its politics,” eschewing or mystifying the complicated political processes and material relations which underpin the production of documentary images and diluting the power of those images to provide meaningful social criticism. 2 Describing Russell Lee’s celebrated photograph depicting the gnarled hands of an elderly farm woman, Maren Stange asserts that FSA photography abstracted its subjects from their social and political contexts, playing to popular preconceptions about the poor: “[It] is exactly the absence of complex social reference—combined with telling graphic appeal—that makes the image[s] attractive and meaningful to a wide audience and that ensures [their] success as a popular symbol of humanitarian sentiment.” 3 According to Stange, these images narrow the interpretive possibilities, “encouraging categorical, rather than particularizing, interpretations.” 4 Along similar lines, Paula Rabinowitz asserts that documentary photography confirms the authority of the bourgeois gaze and middle-class [End Page 357] privilege. In her analysis of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Rabinowitz argues that “[no] matter what its political intentions, the documentary narrative invariably returns to the middle class, enlisting the reader in a process of self-recognition.” 5 Maurice Berger contends that images in the FSA file tend to downplay or diminish the trauma of Depression-era suffering, to confirm rather than to contest dominant social relations. “[On] the whole,” Berger argues, “the picture that emerges from the Historical Section is that of America’s perseverance and its triumphs over poverty.” 6

This essay examines Harlem Document, a compilation of fifty-two photographs of Harlem and its residents taken in the 1930s by Aaron Siskind, a white photographer working at the time with the New York Photo League, a left-leaning documentary photographic collective. Although several of Siskind’s Photo League images were published in periodicals and displayed in exhibitions during the late 1930s and early 1940s, none of his League work was published in book form until the release of Harlem Document in 1981. Siskind’s images are accompanied by interviews, stories, and rhymes about life in 1930s Harlem collected independently of Siskind’s project by four members of the Federal Writers’ Project and incorporated into Harlem Document for the 1981 publication. The book is divided loosely into five sections, on Harlem’s businesses, children, religious and social organizations, entertainment culture, and domestic life. As a whole, the images create a loose narrative that moves from exterior street scenes to interior domestic settings, bringing us progressively farther “inside” the Harlem community. The tone of the photographs is generally dark, with rich shadows and sharp contrasts; compositionally, the images are relatively formal, still and stiff rather than candid.

Siskind’s Harlem Document falls within the bounds of what is conventionally considered “documentary” discourse...