- What Is This a Picture Of?:Some Thoughts on Images and Archives
It is a hot August day in Washington, DC, but I am freezing cold. For the better part of a week I have spent eight hours a day in the Prints and Photographs Room of the Library of Congress, where temperature control is in place not to freeze out researchers like me but to protect the photographs and negatives stored here. Lips blue and teeth chattering, I move among hundreds of bureaucratically gray file cabinets, trying to track down photographs in the Farm Security Administration–Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) file. From the mid-1930s until the middle of World War II, the U.S. government sponsored this massive documentary photography project to chronicle American life in a time of great social upheaval. Photographers such as Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange produced thousands of photographs under the auspices of the FSA-OWI; these images and related records are now archived in the Library of Congress.
My research project is a study of how magazines of the 1930s used FSA photographs to frame discussions of rural poverty.1 I came to the Library of Congress carrying a sheaf of photocopies of FSA images as they appeared in magazines like U.S. Camera and Survey Graphic. My goal is to locate their "original" versions in the file. This is sometimes a difficult task. The magazines often did not give the name of the photographer or offer information about where the photograph was made. I need this information, as well as negative numbers, in order to identify accurately the images I am using. More importantly, I want to compare the magazine versions of the photographs to the versions cataloged in the FSA file. I will make inferences about cropping, for example, to show how magazine editors framed certain images to make particular ideas about poverty more or less rhetorically available.
The search is slow going, yet even with incomplete information I have been modestly successful at tracking down most of what I need. One photograph, however, remains elusive. It features a ragged, middle-aged white man standing on the porch of a rough-hewn cabin in a rural area. His shirt and coveralls have stains and holes, yet the man stands confidently with his hands on his hips, gazing past the right edge of the frame.2 As published in the [End Page 116] March 1936 issue of the magazine Survey Graphic, the photograph offers no caption save for the name of the photographer, Arthur Rothstein. I infer that the image was likely made in a southern state because it accompanied an article about sharecropping in the South.
There are two ways to locate this photograph in the FSA file.3 I can search for it by examining microfilmed "lots," sequences of photographs arranged by photographic assignment, or I can do a subject search by browsing geographically arranged file cabinets containing hard copies of prints.4 Searching the lots is the preferable strategy for studying the corpus of an individual photographer or the images made on a particular photographic assignment, because the photographs are preserved together in their original sequences. Searching the subject file, on the other hand, enables researchers to focus on the FSA's coverage of specific subjects or geographic locations. Neither way is inherently preferable for finding the photograph of the man on the porch, however. I can either scroll through hundreds of Rothstein's photographs on microfilm in order to find one single image or search for the photograph by subject in the file cabinets. I choose the latter, seemingly easier, choice. All I have to do is determine the subject heading under which the image is likely filed.
Days later, after flipping through hundreds of prints mounted on gray cardboard, I am still looking for this photograph. Apparently I am utterly incapable of answering a seemingly simple question: "What is this a picture of?" Eventually by chance or (I prefer to think) by training, I realize I need to read the file not on my terms, but on its own. It is only then that I find my way...