The Verbal and Visual in Concert

Vietnam Inc. - Philip Jones Griffiths

Vietnam Inc. – Philip Jones Griffiths

The obvious place to start exploring the relationship between image and text might be captions and titles, whole books have been dedicated to the subject, but my starting point is the less commonly seen and rarely mastered work where the verbal and visual are equal partners, dependant upon each other to create meaning. It could be argued that this was a more common approach in the great magazine age when Life, Picture Post, the Sunday Times Colour Supplement and other weekly publications championed and relied upon mixed media narratives or even that National Geographic continues to pursue the same strategies today; however, this genre of text and image is often a relationship between caption and photograph or for photographs to be illustrating the text. In either case the photographs and words are usually from different sources becoming partners after the event. Their relationship is thereby transitory, easily broken with the photograph being able to slip away to form new relationships with other words in other places.

In this essay I will look at instances where the words are from a single source or where the writer and photographer have collaborated before rather than after the event. Bill Jay puts forward the argument that great photographers are rarely great writers (1: p147), he was discussing photo criticism at the time but, without too much of a stretch, his point can be extended to cover writing in more general terms. As, so often with Jay’s essays, he starts with one theory and ends with another so his reasons are potently contradictory but in essence he suggests that photographers are not intellectually equipped as writers or maybe they can write but can’t make money from doing so. Whatever the reasons, it is a credible theory that photographers don’t write; in most instances photographers take pictures, writers add the words; so, in the rare instances, when the photographer not only does both but excels in both disciplines we are offered something very interesting.

Collaborations

I have included collaborations of writers and photographers because, whilst the methodology might be slightly off topic, the end result has many of the same characteristics as work by photographer writer. I have already looked at two notable examples of this approach in Berger and Mohr’s A Fortunate Man (here) (2) and Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men (here) (3).

John Sassall, The Fortunate Man - Jean Mohr c.1967

John Sassall, The Fortunate Man – Jean Mohr c.1967

It is probably taking a liberty to speak of these together as they are quite different forms of collaboration. Mohr and Berger conceptualised their work as a literary collaboration from the outset and while they worked independently their premeditated objectives produced a coherent union between words and pictures. Berger described this relationship:

“When we got together again, and compared what I’d written with the photographs Jean had chosen, we found we’d replicated one another’s work entirely. They were tautologous – as if my text was a series of captions to his images. We had both tried to write the book on our own. That’s not what we wanted at all, so we reworked it so that the words and pictures were like a conversation; building on, rather than mirroring, one another.” (4)

Berger goes to the heart of the relationship when the visual and verbal are harmonised, an equal partnership that becomes a conversation between two well informed friends.

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Walker Evans 1936

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – Walker Evans 1936

Evans and Agee’s collaboration was quite different, they came together as journalists assigned to a story which resulted not so much as a conversation but two narratives presented consecutively  with the photographs speaking first from the lectern. The reader creates the conversation by turning back to the pictures as they explore the text rather than the more illustrative and therefore prescriptive approach of Berger and Mohr’s work.

Despite the differences in methodology and presentation they stand as examples of how the meaning of photographs are fixed and the words amplified by the relationship between a series of pictures and extensive prose that could each stand as single media works.

The advantage of these collaborations is that each medium can and is put to its best use; the photograph is the recorder of appearances at a moment in time; through those appearances the viewer is able to consider both the particularity of the event captured and the generalities of what the event represents. The written word can also describe appearances but only through the prism of the writer and the co-operation of the viewer; its strengths lie in the ease with which it can describe ideas. It is notable that in A Fortunate Man Berger appears to recognise this natural demarkation, Mohr describes Sassall’s appearance, Berger explains his philosophies. This bland statement understates both men’s work; Mohr’s descriptions go beyond the bare facts of appearance, he connotes Sassall’s  presence, intellectuality, depth of concern and other attributes whilst Berger puts his medical practice into the context of a much wider exploration into the principles of modern medicine, its accessibility and delivery.

The Writer Photographer

Despite Bill Jay’s reservations many photographers write about their work, photography, their lives and of course the mechanics of their trade but here I will look at works where the photographer’s words are not retrospectives of their work but contemporaneous with their pictures and published as a collective statement.

Philip Jones Griffiths

I first discussed Philip Jones Giffith’s Vietnam Inc. nearly two years ago (here and here) but I am regularly drawn back to it as an example of the heights to which the concerned photographer can reach. Because it extensively uses all three this book could illustrate captions, what the Americans call cutlines or the extended caption, and the relationship between images as well as the extended essay or journalistic article; but I will restrict my comments here to the latter. I have talked elsewhere of Jones Griffith’s background but it is worth mentioning again that his ability to empathise with the Vietnamese was rooted in his Welshness:

“When you have a small country that has been under attack for many years what you have to do is hone the techniques to persuade the invader to leave because you will never be strong enough to push them into the sea. The Vietnamese were very adept at persuading the Americans that it was time to leave.” (5)

He saw in the Vietnamese the same stoic outlook he remembered from his homeland, “a peasant watchfulness” as they worked out what confronted them. This empathy fuelled a passion in Jones Griffiths to tell the story of the ordinary Vietnamese, the ultimate victims in a war that they could neither understand, as it had no meaning; nor control, as it was operated by alien forces as  uncontrollable as they were unfathomable. Vitenam Inc. wasn’t shot as a book, the photographs were originally pure photo journalism, despatched with economically worded captions to Magnum in New York but it quickly became apparent that his viewpoint was too far off message for the conservative US press and Magnum failed to sell his work. He returned to London and constructed Vietnam Inc. by combining his pictures with scathing essays that exposed the ignorance, incompetence and impotency of the American military machine.

The viewer can choose only to look at the pictures, perhaps treat the book like a newspaper using the captions to fix the meaning of the photographs, moving from picture to caption and back to the picture. But to approach his work in this way is to listen to the Beatles without the vocals. It’s still a great tune but the depth of the message is limited.

The "Zippo" Squad, named after the cigarette lighter used to ignite homes from Vietnam Inc. - Philip Jones Griffiths

The “Zippo” Squad, named after the cigarette lighter used to ignite homes from Vietnam Inc. – Philip Jones Griffiths

Jones Griffiths was a highly accomplished photographer who went on to be the president of Magnum for five years so it is not to be taken lightly that he believed he had too much to say to leave it solely to his photographs with or without captions. The black GI setting light to a Vietnamese village speaks volumes, we can consider his appearance, identify the household belongings scattered on the ground, use the caption to guide our search for his Zippo lighter, think about the paradox that he represents a suppressed and exploited Amercan community subjecting a suppressed Asian community, ponder the body language of the other GI part resigned, part gangster street walk, notice the smoke drifting from already burning homes; there is no lack of information and connotation available – Barthes “floating chain of signifieds” (6: p.39).

However, if we read the essay that shares the page we are given a chilly insight into the carefree, joyful attitude of the GIs, a “party atmosphere”. Their “cheeky” conversations with the villagers who were being made refugees in their own land, the “enthusiasm” for their role as arsonists and the lack of clarity regarding the objectives and methodology of the mission. There is a brief narrative created by the Zippo squad image and its caption but this is just an amplification of the appearances provided by the image regarding a moment in Vietnam’s history; it has no past and no future and its meaning is limited to the general context of the war. The essay provides the past and the future, explains the larger military objective, the decline of this rural community leading up to this moment and the likely consequences for the newly created war refugees.

In practice, across seven pages Jones Giffiths presents a photo essay of eleven pictures and three pages of quite dense text as well as captions and cutouts. It is comprehensive report on a single mission placed in the context of the war, a report that could have been provided by either words or images but that would fall short of completeness in both instances. The words I have instinctively used to describe this piece suggest why this approach is effective. It is a journalist’s report from the field, lengthier than most newspapers would accept, factual, precise but subjective. The photographs are less photojournalistic and more documentary with their careful compositions and juxtaposed contents; boy looking back at burning hut; woman looking through shell hole; GI resting in front of burning village. Taken in isolation we might be tempted to suggest it is an objective report and therefore firmly in the genre of journalism but read within the context of the whole book there is little doubt that Jones-Griffiths was not an objective observer, like many of the Magnum concerned documentarists he is making a very personal statement.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange is recognised as one of America’s most important visual documentarists. Her work with the FSA (i) in the thirties gave us some of the most memorable images of the twentieth century but far less is known about her writing. Anne Whiston Spirn has written Daring to Look (7) an absorbing book that brings together, probably for the first time in eighty years, Lange’s photographs, her original captions and her notes from the field.

Near Calipatria, Imperial Valley. Feb. 1939. Paymaster on edge of pea field pays a quarter for very hamper of 30 ins. brought to the scale. Dorothea Lange

Near Calipatria, Imperial Valley. Feb. 1939. Paymaster on edge of pea field pays a quarter for very hamper of 30 ins. brought to the scale. Dorothea Lange

There is a strong element of collaboration in this work but of a very different nature than Evans and Agee or Berger and Mohr. She was first hired by SERA (ii) in 1935 by Paul Taylor who was planning a trip to “access the situation of (Californian) agricultural labourers” (7: p.17). The plan was for Taylor to write and Lange to photograph but it is clear that Lange quickly started to contribute to the text and Whiston Spirn attributes many of the longer texts to either Lange and Taylor or to Lange and other writers. It is not wholly clear how these collaborations operated but we are told that Lange kept copious notes and started to write as early as her first trip; Lange’s assistant, Rondal Partridge, said that the “writing was the equivalent of the photograph, or even more important” (7: p.11) so the combined text and images can be viewed as predominantly Lange’s work and as a single documentary record.

As part of the social media age we live in a cynical era. Motives are constantly questioned and the intent of some of our most critically acclaimed photographers is regularly positioned as self serving and shallow. For failing to ask the name of the subject in her famous Migrant Mother photograph Lange is cast as heartless and ungrateful; her work for the FSA is positioned by some as propaganda, Graham Clarke, whilst accepting the “compelling presence” achieved in Migrant Mother said:

The women is used purely as a subject. She is appropriated within a symbolic framework of significance as declared and determined by Lange.” (8: p.153)

Ignoring for now that this appears to be a description of a significant proportion of documentary photography rather than of Lange’s work in particular it raises the question whether Lange was a cold heartless opportunist seeking fame or a concerned documentarist.

In Whiston Spirn’s book we are presented with series of Lange’s photographs, with her original captions and accompanied by “General Captions” that provide background information for each set. There is no doubt that she takes every opportunity to highlight the efforts of the FSA and other government agencies but only in very factual terms:

“Through the Agicultural Workers Health Medical Association (FSA) the camp is attended by a resident registered nurse……..” (7: p.181)

“This is their first year on Mr. Bains’ place and their second year of borrowing from the FSA.” (7: p106)

In the general captions each situation is carefully described, often organised under headings “Family Composition”, Family History”, “Farm” and providing deep background to the accompanying photographs.

Member of congregation of Wheeley's church called "Queen". She wears the native old fashioned type of sunbonnet. Her dress and apron were made at home. See 19919C for side view of bonnet and homemade gloves. Contrast with Texas type sunbonnet. Dorothea Lange 1939

Member of congregation of Wheeley’s church called “Queen”. She wears the native old fashioned type of sunbonnet. Her dress and apron were made at home. See 19919C for side view of bonnet and homemade gloves. Contrast with Texas type sunbonnet. Dorothea Lange 1939

The captions follow no particular pattern and range from simple statements “Colored owners home” (8: p.126) to insights that bring additional meaning to the images “Caroline Atwater tells about her church.” (8: p.128) but they are often quite lengthy such as the caption for the picture of “Queen” above.

Her motivations were probably similar to Jones Griffiths in that she recognised that her photographs could not communicate the full significance of events and to that extent this book reestablishes that original context (iii).  However, the factual nature of the writing, with the scientific precision of an anthropologist’s field notes, reveals little of Lange’s emotional reaction to her subjects and brings a clinical feel to the combined media. Jones Griffiths’ work has all the subjectivity expected of the concerned photographer, Lange’s work is more objective, less coloured by her opinions.

So, if Jones Griffiths’ text communicates his empathy and emotional response to the Vietnamese and we read his photographs within that framework, Lange comes over as the recorder of data, the civil servant taking minutes whilst consciously excluding her personal view. The net effect of this difference in the text carries through to her photographs; they begin to reflect the tone of the text; their purpose becomes a factual record to be “pinned” to the text in the government files; the picture of Queen changes from a sympathetic portrait to something akin to a passport photograph and Clarke’s judgment (8: p.153) appears to be upheld; Lange sees her subjects as symbolic examples that fit within a politicised framework of the poor needing help, the Government helps, the poor are saved and American values are reinstated.

I reviewed Walker Evans’ photographs from the same period (here) and  concluded that

“Evans was highly sensitive to America’s ambivalence towards its own history and to the state of small towns and rural areas”

This sensitivity is communicated through his lifelong themes and his specific work amongst the southern share-croppers; Evans held strong views regarding photography and social issues and we view his work in that context. Agee’s rebellious and impassioned writing in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is nearly irrelevant to the reading of Evan’s pictures which on their own represent a sympathetic and powerful cry for help. Many of Lange’s photographs are equally powerful and out of context might bear direct comparison with Evan’s work but having now seen them in the original context as provided by her text they feel slightly diminished, less an expression of concern and more a statement of fact.

Notes on Text

(i) Formed in 1935 the Resettlement Administration (RA) was the forerunner of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) which was established in 1937. In 1935 Roy E. Stryker became the head of the RA’s Historical Section and once the organisation was renominated in 1937 he established the photographic project that endeavoured to document the issues of the farmers they were trying to help. Some of the greatest American documentary photographers worked for Stryker and the FSA including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee.

(ii) The Californian Emergency Relief Administration. Paul Taylor, an economist, was its newly appointed Field Director for Rural Rehabilitation when he first hired Dorothea Lange. They were to marry ten months later. (7. p17)

(iii) A point that speaks to the previously discussed slipperiness of the photograph, a medium that can detach itself from its original verbal partnerships and continually form new partnerships and revised contexts (here). How Lange’s photographs escaped from their original captions is worthy of a little more investigation and is discussed in a separate essay (here).

Sources

Books

(1) Jay, Bill (1992) Occam’s Razor. Tucson: Nazraeli Press

(2) Berger John & Mohr, Jean (1967) A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. (Originally published by Penguin Books in 1967; this edition published by Canongate Books 2016) London: Canongate

(3) Agee, James and Evans, Walker (1941) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (First Mariner Books Edition 2001). Boston: Houghton Miffin Company

(6) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

(7) Whiston Spirn, Anne (2008) Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(8) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Internet

(4) Francis, Gavin (2015) John Berger’s A Fortunate Man: a masterpiece of witness (accessed at The Guardian 26.3.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/07/john-sassall-country-doctor-a-fortunate-man-john-berger-jean-mohr

(5) Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths

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