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  • Picture/Story:Representing Gender in Montana Farm Security Administration Photographs
  • Mary Murphy (bio)

Photographs do not speak to us in words. We "look" at photographs, "view" them, and "visit" exhibits of them; we do not ordinarily talk about "reading" them. Photos frequently move us emotionally; they fill us with a sense of beauty, of pleasure, of grief, or of horror. In fact, their very success is often judged by the initial visceral reaction they provoke. But if we look to photographs as we look to other sources of information about the past—letters, diaries, newspapers, court records—how then do we interpret them and what can they tell us? If we are interested in the history of gender, can photographs be revelatory sources? Gender, of course, is intimately twined with the body, its primary signifier. In historic documentary photographs we have representations of bodies of the past. Female bodies, dressed in certain clothing, perform certain work or play and relate in certain ways to male bodies, which also dress and act in accordance with gender roles. We can undoubtedly use historic photos as sources of information regarding the nature of the things pictured in them: the pattern of fabric, construction of clothing, design of tools, the style of a building. Photographs can tell us something about past constructions of gender or at least the ways in which gender was outwardly signified. However, gender roles are by their very nature dynamic and interactive and therefore harder to capture in a photograph.

Like all documents, photos contain partial truths. In one sense they seem deceptively unfiltered, unedited, and ostensibly transparent. They are immediate representations of a moment, often made in anticipation of the passage of that moment. Thus they appear as accurate representations of the past that we seek to understand. However, the photographic print presented to a viewer is the result of complicated processes of ideological choice and technical manipulation that informed the instant when the photographer clicked the shutter and the production of the resulting print. To know what a photograph might say about a particular time, place, or subject, we must try to establish [End Page 93] the grounds for the decisions that went into the production of that image, just as we would try to establish the context of the production of any historical document. But we also have the mute image itself to decode, and to read that "text" is to read body language. How do we interpret the head tilted just so, the back turned, the arm wrapped around the waist, the gaze fixed on some distant point, the hat tipped jauntily, the stockings sagging on too-thin legs?1

In this essay I discuss my interrogation of a set of documentary photographs taken by Russell Lee in Sheridan County, Montana, in 1937, under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Examining one photographer's work in one county allows me to investigate the ways in which gender helped to construct the FSA photographs' master narrative, an epic tale of the struggle for survival and dignity in the face of drought, dust storms, and economic collapse. Russell Lee and his colleagues depicted "one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," burdened but not bowed. The telling of this tale often turned upon portraits of men and women whose bodies testified to decades of hard physical labor and their determination to continue that work if the economy would permit. The narrative was also transmitted through the figuration of American families in all of the country's regions. FSA photos exposed the difficulties that families faced during the 1930s; they sometimes hinted at the tensions dire economic conditions spawned, especially between husbands and wives. Above all, they documented resilience and adaptability. The FSA used these photographs to attempt to persuade a national audience of voters and policymakers that the country required fixing and that the New Deal had the right tools for the job. FSA photos needed to carry universal messages that everyone could read, but in the locales in which the photos were made there were often other meanings embedded in them. Thus the results of Lee's choices of whom to photograph...


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pp. 93-115
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