Monday, December 26, 2011

The mysteries of photography reveal progress

I just read Errol Morris's excellent book, Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). Every bit of the book is thought-provoking, as he takes old photographs and analyzes them to find out the stories behind them, which brings up all sorts of questions about what truth is and how accurately we can portray and remember it. One small portion of the book reminded me of the Secret Peace so I thought I'd share it.

Have you ever seen either of these famous photographs?

The first one is by Arthur Rothstein, from 1936. The second is also from the same year, by Dorothea Lange. Both of these photos perfectly evoke the desperation of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and have become iconic pieces of American history.

But when we come back years later, this is what we find:

We see the little boy on the right of the Dust Bowl photo, now grown and in his own home, as well as a story in Look Magazine about "The Dust Bowl Turns to Gold." Then we also see the "Migrant Mother" herself, surrounded by her three now-grown daughters, posing in one of their suburban backyards. Put simply, here is photographic evidence of people who are much better off than they were in the 1930s.

In The Secret Peace book, I don't mention many cases like this, because they are only anecdotal evidence. In and of themselves, they don't build a case for progress because they are only two examples. And you can always find counter-examples. (Although it would probably be difficult to find many families worse off than they were during the '30s, and even harder the farther back in time you go ... this would be an interesting experiment.) So the book focuses on broader statistics. Nevertheless, these pictures are riveting in a way that statistics can not be; in fact, this was the point of the original photographs themselves.

Morris's book goes into a lot more nuanced detail about these photographs as well as many others, of the Crimean War and Abu Ghraib, for example. It's a fascinating read that I highly recommend. You'll never look at photographs the same way again.

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