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  • Moving Pictures
  • Donal Harris (bio)
American Modernism and Depression Documentary by Jeff Allred. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 272. $65.00 cloth.

American Modernism and Depression Documentary makes a convincing case for the redundancy of its own title. As Jeff Allred shows, Depression documentary—and particularly the photography often associated with various New Deal cultural projects—is far more unruly than critics usually admit, and it must be viewed as one of many versions of American modernist practice. To contextualize this claim, Allred runs down what he sees as the shared assumptions about documentary-as-genre and photography-as-medium: immediacy, objectivity, mimetic transparency, self-evidence, witness, and the coextensiveness of reality with the field of representation. In every way, then, documentary and photography look like the unhappy descendants of Howellsian literary realism, a model that modernist authors consciously positioned themselves against and spent the first half of the twentieth century turning inside out. Allred counters this opposition of modernism and documentary (as a subset of realism) by arguing that twentieth-century documentary forms, especially those of the 1930s, participate in a "modernist aesthetics of interruption," a methodology that self-reflexively concerns itself with the same negotiation of reality and representation that documentary is often assumed to take for granted (7). In this regard, Allred's study can be read alongside those of Michael [End Page 169] North, Sara Blair, Stuart Burrows, Joseph B. Entin, and others that offer nuanced interpretations and material histories of the relationship between literary modernism and photography. By the book's end, we come away with a far subtler definition of documentary, one that consists of a "speculative practice of aesthetic construction" that opens up uninvestigated possibilities for representing "the people" (7).

The study begins by juxtaposing two different versions of peoplehood. First, Franklin D. Roosevelt's anaphora-laced Second Inaugural Address: "I see a great nation, upon a great continent. . . . I see millions of families. . . . I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished" (3). The commander in chief's giant "I" sees the starving masses, and his proposed path out of suffering entails incorporating the down-and-out one third into a fully modern majority. To counter this all-encompassing federal vision, Allred gives Richard Wright's first-person-plural narration in 12 Million Black Voices (1941) as an example of what Roosevelt's line of sight might miss. Wright insists that "each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land . . . we are not what we seem," and that "[b]eneath [this] garb . . . lies an uneasily tied knot of pain and hope whose snarled strands converge from many points of time and space" (5). In place of the self-evident surfaces that Roosevelt wants to fix with the New Deal, Wright gives us an historical and affective "knot" that is narrated by a rather ambiguous "we." In Roosevelt and Wright, we find two versions of seeing for oneself and speaking for others. Not only that, but we also find one of the many wonderful insights in Allred's book: that even in what might, in our sepiatoned moments of nostalgia, feel like a period of national consensus about who needs help and how to go about providing it, "the people" was just as highly contested in the 1930s as it is now.

One of the great moves that Allred makes is conjoining his arguments about political and aesthetic representation so that formulations of "the people" always come into contact with a complicated method of photographic seeing. Allred primarily traces the implications of this argument through Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell's You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), and Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices (1941). A chapter is devoted to each of the three main texts, and his readings of these works are book-ended by a chapter each on the emergence of the cultural worker, and on the corporate photojournalism of Henry Luce's Life magazine. Allred could not have chosen better material through which to work out his argument. The 1930s [End Page 170] were the heyday...


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pp. 161-168
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