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" Photography may not, as Susan Sontag has claimed, symbolically reduce its subjects to "corpses,"
It should also be pointed out this is to often not a specifically intentional attempt at disguise, but rather forms part of the cultural views and milieu of the time. This becomes evident if we take an cursory look at some of the photographers of the period.
Frances Benjamin Johnston's Hampton Album was possibly one of the first photographic attempts to document and 'explain' in images the concept and reality of the American dream. Her work particularly relates to the above problems: the question of the other or minorities in the nation. Johnson created her images at Virginia's Hampton Institute in November and December 1899. This was an institution which was concerned with the education and training of Black people.
Many of the aspects relating to nations building and the American dream, as well as the method of dealing and depicting the " other ," including various forms of prejudice, can be gleaned for the work of Francis Johnson. There is a consistent striving in the images to show America in terms of the ideals of industriousness and civilized standards that were part of the American dream. The focus on the images is also on showing how America was dealing with its "Negro" and Indian problems. In the photographs, Black people are represented not as culturally distinct individuals, but as functionaries or willing partners in the great white American ideal. They are shown as people who are subserviently willing to be "trained" and educated, or 'civilized', in the image of their white superiors.
An interesting aspect is that the images do not show any sense of identity or individuality, except as the subjects relate to the overarching ideals and concepts in the images. Comments on the Hampton Paris Exhibition of Johnson's work make this attitude clear.
The exhibit which Hampton is preparing to send to the Paris Exposition emphasizes the importance placed by the school authorities on the training of the Indian and Negro in the arts that pertain to home and farm life . . . It is Part of the Plan of the exhibit to contrast the new life among the Negroes and Indians with the old and then show how Hampton has helped to produce the change . . . The value of such an exhibit lies not only in showing to others but in making clear to the school itself what it is doing.
("The Paris Exhibit." 1900. p.8)
A very important part of Johnston's images are the success of the American dream and society. This is clearly portrayed in the images of healthy industry and a civilized work ethic.
Looking at her images of the expositions -- in which America's products and inventions were displayed in grandiose, pseudoclassic temples, pavilions, and a palace of the "Mechanical Arts" surrounded by fountains, artificial lakes, and pompous statuary -- it is easy to see why American visitors believed they were indeed living in what journalists and politicians had begun to call "the greatest nation on earth," whose grandeur would surely equal or surpass that of Athens, Rome, London, Paris, or Berlin.
( Guimond 24)
However, researchers have also shown that much of the realism of Johnston's images were in fact fabricated.
But many of these buildings, so impressive in Johnston's pictures, were really made out of a cheap compound called "staff," a mixture of jute fiber and plaster of paris made to look like white marble. Similarly, some of the more thoughtful leaders of Johnston's era were aware that their nation was not as impressive as it looked.
( Guimond 24)
One of the misrepresentations in the early images of the American ideal was the attempt to hide or incorporate the problem of the "other." While in Johnston's work the positive aspects of nations building are shown, on the other hand many problems were manipulated to fit this ideal. This is not meant to assert that the photographer was propagandist; rather, as previously stated, the central point is that her art was a product of the cultural vision and norms of the time. It was therefore a depiction of the struggle for a coherent image of the national goals at the period. However, whatever the intention, there is also no doubt that the images are a gross misdirection and manipulation of the image to promote a certain ideological perspective.
Considered in this context, Johnston's Hampton pictures, exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900, may have been meant as a tacit demonstration to the civilized world that at least some white Americans had discovered a method of educating their nation's "darker races" superior to that of the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee or of lynch mobs in Alabama and Georgia. Her pictures were used as part of the American Negro exhibit, which was meant to illustrate "Negro progress and present conditions" in the United States.
( Guimond 25)
The idea of the Negro as an industrious worker was acceptable, even to the more extreme and conservative sectors of the population. While the Negro was seen as the "other," yet the idea of the black man as a worker in industry who could be trained to was acceptable. This is reflected in Johnston's photography.
Frances Johnston, "Stairway of Treasurer's Residence, Students at Work," Hampton Institute, 1899 (Library of Congress)
Furthermore, "Johnston's images also implied that the students had learned and were living by what at the turn of the century was called "the white man's way." Their dress is the strongest indicator of their acceptance of white culture." ( Guimond 25)
The idea that is presented time and again in the images is the black man and women being trained and socialized to be part of the white world. He or she is not depicted as an individual with a separate ethnic and cultural tradition, but rather as an adjunct of the dominant white world. This also applies to the stance and clothing that was used in the images, which all represent the dominant Eurocentric culture. The image below emphasizes this trajectory and the Negro is depicted as civilized in the white tradition.
Frances Johnston, "The Old Folks at Home," 1899 (Library of Congress)
The 'other' is still depicted as separate, but acceptable as they are subserviently linked to the American ideal. Lincoln Kirstein astutely describes these images as frozen . . . habitat groups, [that are] almost, but not quite entirely -- believable. . . . There are precious few smiling faces among the prim pinafores and starched blouses; no hair ribbon is out of place; no boot unshined. . . . Without overt irony, we have . . . The white Victorian ideal [portrayed] as criterion towards which all darker tribes and nations must perforce aspire."
(Kirstein L. 1966. p10)
The people depicted in these images as the " other" seem more like exhibits than living people. This is also evident in the image "Class in American History,"
The images that Johnson produced were all inclined towards the aim of nation building.
Johnston's images were also intended to demonstrate to an uninformed, even skeptical, world that the United States was fulfilling its mission civilisatrice, that under the benevolent tutelage of white leaders and educators American blacks and Indians had indeed progressed during the past few decades. ( Guimond 25)
However, there were also other photographers of the period who questioned the assumptions of the American dream. Lewis Hine on the other hand was a very different photographer and interrogated the actual reality of the society of the time. Although they were contemporaries, these two photographers presented a very different view of the American nation. Hine was a social commentator who attempted to show the reality of the American dream through images of the poverty and the actual social conditions that the "other "part of the society lived under. "In contrast, Hine considered himself a kind of spy who was anything but a sympathetic guest: many of the mines, factories, and mills he visited were officially breaking the law by employing the children whom he photographed." ( Guimond 25)
The image below entitled Breaker Boys Working in Ewen Breaker, shows a more direct and harsh view of the American reality.
Lewis Hine, "Breaker Boys Working in Ewen Breaker," South Pittston, Pennsylvania, 1911 (Records of the Children's Bureau, National Archives)
It should also be noted that the subjects gaze in the above picture are direct and they are presented as individuals, unlike the stereotypes in Johnston's work
In Johnston's pictures the black and Native American students are always generic beings intended to illustrate the virtues of the Hampton philosophy, and their lack of individuality is increased by the way she visually segregates them from the observer. Hine, on the other hand, often…[continue]
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