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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 437-444

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Documentary Declension

Mark Rice

Lili Corbus Bezner. Photography and Politics in America: From the New Deal into the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xiv + 307 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95.

Documentary photography is difficult to define, a fact that presents both challenges and opportunities to historians interested in exploring the rich terrain of American photography. Researchers who use photographs from the past depend on photography's evidentiary power, but must do so cautiously. As Lawrence Levine put it in his 1988 essay, "The Historian and the Icon": "The photograph is beguiling because it seems to be the quintessential objective document . . . and thus makes a greater claim on our credulity than other types of documents." 1 Documentary photography is a category that many people think they know when they see, but which can't neatly be contained in a box of any size or shape. Is it determined by its subject matter, or is it determined by a particular aesthetic? Is it determined by the motives of the photographer, or is it determined by the contexts in which the resultant images are found? None of these ways of defining documentary photography is completely satisfying, and a long-standing dilemma in photo-historical research has been figuring out what should or shouldn't be considered documentary. Beaumont Newhall, the curator and scholar who was largely responsible for codifying photographic categories, eventually came to prefer the more inclusive term "humanistic photography." John Szarkowski, the most influential figure in American photography in the latter part of the twentieth century, declared in the 1970s that the division between photography into categories of "art" and "document" was a "red herring," and he pointed to the photography of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to suggest that the value of all photographs can be weighed in the discourses of modernist art history.

The uneasy relationship between photography-as-art and photography-as-document is at the heart of Lili Corbus Bezner's engaging book, Photography and Politics in America. Bezner, a professor of art history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, states that her goal is to explore "the complex relationship between documentary work and artistic photography" in order [End Page 437] to "re-create the contemporary tensions that existed between the two extremes" during the Cold War (p. 13). Bezner's study adds a layer of complexity to a seemingly intractable debate about the nature of photography. Throughout much of the twentieth century, many serious photographers labored uneasily under one or the other of the guiding precepts of "art" or "documentary," often trying to stretch categorical boundaries that can be more limiting than liberating. Nevertheless, Bezner says that the boundaries between documentary and art remain firmly in place at the dawn of a new century. Revealing Bezner's sensitivity to the difficulties of photographic categories, her book opens with an introduction that addresses the problematics of the documentary category while simultaneously declaring that "documentary photography has been a useful trope that distinguishes a humanistic perspective many image makers embraced and explored in twentieth-century photography" (p. 1). Bezner says that "[d]ocumentary photography's central concern has always been legible content . . . and the image's capacity to arouse viewers' sympathetic emotions" (p. 5). Moreover, documentary photography's "presumptions of truth, narrative function, and social purpose imply a photographer's passionate commitment to the communication of cultural subjects in any era" (p. 226). As Bezner shows, the line between "truth" and personal expression has frequently been blurred, and her study reveals the tensions between content and form.

Through a close study of three chapters in twentieth-century American photography, Bezner examines the decline of documentary photography's prominence and the concomitant rise of expressionistic photography. The book's subtitle--From the New Deal into the Cold War--is a bit misleading because Bezner spends little time on the photography of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Readers who expect a study of government-sponsored photography may be disappointed, but they will be rewarded with an intimate look...


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