While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.
-- Dorothea Lange
The last 100 years produced an explosion of visual images. Advances in photography, from bulky glass plate negatives to today's compact digital cameras, made image creation and reproduction easier. The growth of mass media led to a proliferation of the visual. Today, the average American takes in a daily blizzard of visual information, far more than our relatives did a century ago.
Just three decades into this image-filled century, writer James Agee - known for his landmark work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photographer Walker Evans - called the camera "the central instrument of our time." So it seems fitting that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) chose photography as the media of choice to document the 20th century as it drew to a close in 1999. Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography from the National Archives began as an exhibition at NARA headquarters in Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2001. The Smithsonian Institution then organized 106 of the images into a traveling show; as a Smithsonian affiliate, the MAC will host the exhibition for a six-week run from Dec. 10 to Jan. 23.
"Their purposes, as stated in the catalog, were to explore government photography, illustrate changes in American society over the last century, showcase some of NARA's photographic riches and highlight the work of outstanding photographers," says Marsha Rooney, curator of history at the MAC, who is coordinating the exhibition locally. "We felt these are powerful images. And also, we had put in our own Spokane photo show [Spokane Memories], and I think it will be really interesting for people to see the two [exhibitions] together, to draw their own parallels."
NARA's 34 facilities hold close to 35 million photographs, in addition to films, maps, drawings, sound and video recordings, eight billion pages of text documents and four billion electronic data records from all branches of the federal government. From these vast holdings, 106 photographs were selected to be part of the collection that's been traveling the country since 2001.
All of the images came from NARA's holdings; most were produced by photographers working for federal agencies, courts or offices. The photographs are grouped into six broad time frames with eight portfolios by prominent photographers - including Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams - arranged chronologically throughout. In some cases, the photographers and their assignments are well documented; in others, the image-makers remain anonymous and their purpose a mystery.
"Photographers aren't archivists and agencies are not archivists," Rooney notes. "So a lot of the background information about the assignments or the intention has been lost."
As an example of potential misinterpretation, she suggests a 1931 image by George Ackerman of a farmer relaxing in his rocking chair while reading a copy of The Progressive Farmer.
"It looks really nostalgic," says Rooney. "It's the old days, he's relaxing, he's not working. But ... the point was that [the farmer] was getting access to the latest farm information. It wasn't just a quaint photo of a farmer at rest; there was another level there."
When we look at a painting, we know we're seeing another person's interpretation of the subject. The composition, artistic style, and even the choice of subject itself reveals much about the artist's intent. Somehow when we view a photograph, its realism strikes us first, and we may forget that many of the same choices lie behind the image.
"We always like to think that photography is real," says Rooney. "But it isn't real. It's still a selection. Someone has made a selection, someone has cropped out something."
Decisions made by the photographer shape every photograph, especially what to include and what to exclude from the frame. As NARA curator Bruce Bustard writes, "Photographs are created deliberately; they seek to convey meaning and suggest an interpretation of a particular moment in history. They are also the product of a complex interaction among the photographer, the subject, the viewer, and those who may have requested the image."
Keeping these ideas in mind, these photographs document a nation in transition from an agrarian society to a post-industrial world power. Several photographs document key events in the nation's history, such as the first flight at Kitty Hawk and the attack on Pearl Harbor, but federal cameras were just as likely to be trained on unknown people and places. For example, Hine's image of a powerhouse mechanic at work in 1920 speaks volumes about industrialization, despite - or perhaps because of - the anonymity of the worker and the workplace.
Some of the photographs came from organized documentary efforts through agencies like the National Child Labor Committee, the Farm Security Administration, the Works Progress Administration and the National Park Service. Others emerged from obscure reports or court documents.
Regionally, the U.S. Reclamation Service hired photographer Walter Lubken to document irrigation projects across the West from 1903 to 1917, including the Boise Irrigation Project in Idaho and Oregon. Other images show women factory workers during World War I at the Puget Sound Navy Yard and wheat harvesting right here in Eastern Washington.
The exhibition catalog, published in association with the University of Washington Press, presents marvelous reproductions of the images along with an expansive essay by Bustard, who will speak at the MAC on Jan. 13.
What will happen in another 100 years, when the archivists of the day seek to document the current century? As digital images assume prominence, will static photographs still convey meaning? Vision is a cultural practice, as scholars note, and we continually learn new ways to "see" the myriad images before us. But the lessons of reading historic images need not be lost. In this day of embedded journalists and photographers, we must practice our cultural vision more than ever.