- IN TIME WE SHALL KNOW OURSELVES by Raymond Smith
In June 1974, Raymond Smith finished the spring semester at Yale University, where he was a graduate student in American Studies, and set off in an aged VW Beetle armed with a budding interest in documentary photography, two Rolleiflex film cameras, and a plan to spend three months traveling the country and capturing the American experience in images of black and white. The rickety VW did not survive the journey, but Smith nevertheless succeeded in securing dozens of remarkable photographs, most of them individual and small group portraits of ordinary people, that have at last been reproduced in a high-quality edition. Working within a vernacular photographic tradition that he learned from Walker Evans, who was a mentor at Yale, and from Robert Frank, whose The Americans (1958) he acknowledges as an important artistic influence, Smith’s photographs are arresting for their intimate yet dignified framing of his human subjects as part of what he calls a “somewhat Whitmanesque mission of capturing in photographs something about the America of the 1970s” (n.p.). The resulting book of previously unpublished photographs from Smith’s archives was created as a catalog to accompany exhibitions of Smith’s work during 2014–2016 at art museums in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Evans’s famous contributions as documentary photographer for James Agee’s classic meditation on the experience of rural Southern poverty, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), is an especially important influence and model for Smith. Charting a road trip across a variety of states, including several images from Connecticut, [End Page 160] Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Ohio, the center of gravity for Smith’s photography—as with Evan’s images in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—is the American South. One of Smith’s most searing portraits, “Demopolis, Alabama (For Walker Evans),” featuring a handsome, intent, but unsmiling African American man standing in front of the town bank, is part of a sequence of Smith photographs that address questions of race and poverty as experienced in the Deep South. In their sensitivity, intimacy, and empathy, Smith’s images are reminiscent as well of Dorothea Lange’s famous documentary images for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression and Eudora Welty’s lesser-known but important photographs from Mississippi taken during her years as a WPA photographer during the 1930s.
Smith’s Southward-tending images from 1970s middle America figure as an admirable reprise and supplement to work by the earlier generation of documentary photographers, providing an implicit homage to artists such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Eudora Welty, and Dorothea Lange, while revisiting American life in the Midwest and South. It is also worth remembering the uneasy politics smoldering during Smith’s documentary tour, which took place during the final months of the Nixon presidency and less than a year after the end of United States military involvement in Vietnam. They were incendiary political contexts crucial for the 1970s—to say nothing of 1970s Yale student and faculty activism—and impossible to forget or ignore as these images powerfully conjure the human experience of that era. One wonders if during his documentary tour of the American South this remarkable photographer was made aware of his fellow Yale alumnus Bill Clinton (J.D. 1973), who was in Arkansas running a strong and eventually successful Congressional campaign during the summer of 1974.
Following the fifty-two images are lucid essays on the artist and his work by Richard H. King and Alexander Nemerov, and there is a brief afterword by Smith. Together, they give a fuller account of Smith’s life and activities in the 1970s and situate his work within a rich and now expanded tradition of important American twentieth-century documentary photography.