Community, an American dream aesthetic, and the persistence of the FSA.

I wasn’t expecting to do as much research into the FSA photographs as I have. Essentially, I dismissed this as work that was studied during my formative photographic education, which was for beginners and then move on. It is a persistent presence in documentary photography however, and referenced continuously by other photographers, either overtly, or as a clear influence in the style of the work. Whilst rediscovering its significance when reading Todd Hido referencing the use of Roy Stryker’s shooting scripts (2014, p. 123), the FSA creates a scaffold in which to construct a photo documentary about people, place and connection to community. The canonical imagery from this work, from photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans have become mythologised works, where the original context has, as Susan Sontag points out: “the photograph is, always, an object bound in a context, this meaning is bound to drain away” (1979, p. 106) after acknowledging that the original purpose of the FSA images was a complete construction of the precise elements to elicit the feeling that these people were in fact poor (p. 6). They have been shown time after time to be falsehoods, yet remain revered as the quintessential documentary representation (Stein, 2020, p. 59) and I see the influence of this body of work in much of the photography that I am researching as part of my project.

Figure 1: Paul Hart (2009 – 2015) ‘West View Farm’ from ‘Farmed’ series.
Figure 2: Dorothea Lange (1938) Tractored Out, Childress County.

For example, I started to look at the work of Paul Hart’s work titled ‘Farmed’ (Fig: 1), which are a striking series of landscapes in black and white that are quite emotive, which reference the FSA imagery through the industrialised farming landscape that he shoots (Fig: 2). Comparisons are even made in the opening essay to that work, where Steven Brown compares Hart’s images to those of Dorothea Lange (Hart & Brown, 2016, p. 5). I have started to consider the landscape much more as a vital part of my narrative. I have already discussed Vanessa Winship’s use of landscape in her series ‘She Dances on Jackson’ (2013), in which two thirds of the work is actually made of landscape images (Fig: 3), however Winship notes that even without the presence of humans in these images, they are still about people. Traces of human impact and existence are ever present, especially in a country like the UK where every square inch of the country has had some kind of impact from Humans living here.

Figure 3: Vanessa Winship (2013) Image from ‘She Dances on Jackson’

I have been especially drawn to the woodland areas that surround Watford, which started last module after I connected with the volunteers of Harebreaks woods near where I live (Fig: 4). I had never been to the woods before and was amazed that such a resource existed without my knowledge. This wood become somewhere that I walked during the lock down and have taken a great number of images. This exploration has extended into this module where I have been aiming to connect with people who have also been using the same spaces and are now coming back together – inspiring the title for this work.

Figure 4: Phil Hill (February, 2020) Helen, volunteer litter picker, Harebreaks wood.

Vanessa Winship talked about her work based in Albania and how the people seemed to have some semblance of the American Dream, where she notes that the idea of the ‘American Dream’ is something that all societies are striving for, or at least, a local version of this (2015). This really resonated in the way that I started to approach some of the landscape images as some of the scenes, especially those with pine trees, feel like they could have been taken in north America somewhere (Fig: 5). The concept of community and the American dream have a deep connection in themselves and have become part of a nostalgia and idealised version of the world that may not even exist so I am keen to continue pushing this look in my images to highlight constructed perceptions of the idealised community and now that I am really focussing in on Watford as a place for this exploration, there are parallels to be drawn in the ultra-suburbia of Watford as the last place before entering the metropolis of London, and also the first non-London town when leaving.

Figure 5: Phil Hill (July, 2020) Meadow by the Grove, just outside of Watford

Treating the American Dream as a conceptual tool in which to explore the idea of community is interesting because part of the idea of that dream is inherently individualistic and draws on Barthes’ idiorrythm (2012); people wish to live in the same space as one another but remain separate. As Suzanne Keller notes:

“American society confronts a paradox, historically, the culture has emphasized the language of individualism, laissez faire, and private property; it has valued the idea of the individual succeeding on his or her own, in the absence of social constraints, prodded by a do-it-yourself, do-your-own-thing philosophy.” And she moves on to point out that “there is no way to go it alone”

(1988, pp. 167-168).

The idealistic package being sold versus the reality of achieving are not compatible with one another.

Keller’s discussions on the American Dream and community are useful, even for my project based in the UK as she outlines some basic principles of community:

“Community is part of the proximate, everyday world, more immediate than the far away society yet larger than the family and primary group, that gives meaning and purpose to one’s life and that also diminishes one’s sense of vulnerability and of being adrift or alone in an anonymous world”

(1988, p. 170).

If all cultures around the world are in search of their own ‘American Dream’ as Winship states, then it is important to understand how this ideal is a flawed concept and will continue to perpetuate the disconnect of an immediate perception of the community, creating a perpetual disdain for what is right here, right now. This is becoming quite revelatory to my own perception of community as I consider whether there is a worthwhile investment in the community where I currently live.

Photography seems like quite a useful way of exploring this. Knowing that the idealistic community is a construction, it is quite easy to construct my images to hold up the ideal as a way of analysing it. I am already doing this with my use of black and white to accentuate the nostalgic elements of the community as others might see it. I have aimed to create my own paradox of nostalgia whilst at the same time photographing the present. By also seeking to create an aesthetic in my work that emulates the look and feel of a North American scene would only further play with the perception of community and the ideal, knowing that these are all constructions in my work.

Keller also outlines a theory of community put forward by Ferdinand Tönnies, the idea of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, which is something that will be useful to look into in greater detail. “Gemeinschaft … human association rooted in traditions and emotional attachment” and “gesellschaft is a very different social formation: larger, specialised, impersonal, and pluralistic”  (1988, p. 171). For Keller, American society has shifted into gesellschaft, which has created this disconnect as we increasingly live in larger and larger communities. Moving forward in my own research, it is important to identify whether my own community values gesellschaft over gemeinschaft. This too, is important to understand in the context of the ongoing pandemic and other socio-political issues that we are facing as a society, such as Brexit. Keller also notes that the shift to a more individualistic, impersonal community comes at the cost of the emotional attachment of gemeinschaft, yet people still seek it and long for it, which supports the way we view community through a nostalgic lens (p. 172). This I feel, is something that I have been aiming to place into my project. My own feeling of disconnect is potentially born from the idea of gesellschaft and I also seek an emotional connection to place. My photography could be a way to do that.

Work in Progress Gallery