Now that I’m old enough to have a historical perspective myself, I’m increasingly interested in how our understanding of our own past is manipulated, even controlled, by the words and images chosen to represent it. Even while absorbed in the 106 photographs on view at the N.C. Museum of History, in a show organized by the Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service, I kept wondering about that issue. By what criteria were the images in Picturing the Century: 100 Years of Photography from the National Archives chosen?
Every curatorial act has ramifications for our understanding of an exhibition’s subject matter. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of the choices that were made here, taken together they present such a pale and fragmentary version of 20th century America that the exhibition’s title strikes one as rather an overstatement.
Although these several dozen photographs certainly cannot fully picture a century, even when restricted to a single country, they do manage to hit a large number of the peaks and canyons, as well as some of the plateaus, of American life during the 20th century. I would have chosen some different things. However, having lived through nearly half of the century and having read extensively about the other half, I’m able to fill in the blanks for myself. But what kind of idea would a bright elementary student form from this show? Life in the United States changed so much over the course of the century that some of what’s depicted here must surely seem peculiar, if not incomprehensible, to an information-age child.
What, for instance, could a child raised on fast food, microwave dinners and juice boxes possibly make of one of the exhibition’s loveliest pictures, in which a proud married couple poses behind a table holding their impressive array of home-canned fruits, vegetables and preserves? The man and woman are dressed in their best, and stand on the porch of their frame house. The husband is angled a little bit away from the camera, looking into the distance, but the wife holds herself very straight, facing us directly and enveloping us in her radiant gaze. She looks about 16 years old. This photograph was taken in Robeson County, N.C., in 1932, a time when people in this country were starving to death, a time when poor country people with gardens and a lot of Mason jars were better off than most. A bounty of preserved food like this represented a kind of accomplishment and security almost unimaginable now.
I would have liked to see that photograph placed closer to the group of pictures by Dorothea Lange, which includes her famous “White Angel Breadline.” Here we look down on the slumped shoulders and dirty coats and hats of hungry, jobless men in a milling crowd, waiting helplessly for someone to hand them the chunks of bread that will stave off the raking pains of hunger for one more night. Lange photographed many poor people during the hard times of the Depression, and her subjects are difficult for our well-off selves to study now.
Not all of the exhibition looks at the Depression years. There’s the great surge of building in the cities, including a wonderful shot of a New York construction worker on a beam cantilevered out in space, with the Chrysler Building gleaming below. There’s Lewis Hine’s well-known “Powerhouse Mechanic Working on a Steam Pump,” in which the man and the machine emanate equal amounts of power and energy. (It would have been great to show that alongside Annie Leibowitz’s recent portrait of Martina Navratilova in the same pose, but I don’t suppose the National Archives owns a copy of the Leibowitz shot.) There are several celebratory images dealing with dam building for energy and for irrigation purposes. Now we are just as likely to damn the dams as environmentally destructive as we are to build them, and heralding a desert irrigation project as “land reclamation” would strike most of us as the height of arrogance and hubris. These pictures recall a very different time, as does the image of new immigrants arriving at Ellis Island with their bundles and their East European clothing. There are no pictures here, for instance, of Hispanic immigrants crossing the southern border.
There are, of course, many images from various wars. The most amazing, if technically the crudest, shows a World War II Flying Fortress in the air, seconds after one wing has been shot off. Taken from another plane, it allows us to see the flyers’ nightmare unfolding. The mighty B-17 is still flying, but its entire right wing has been blown off, and is just beginning its downward spiral.
Vietnam is touched on, along with World War I, the Korean War and the TV war, Desert Storm. There are several poignant pictures, but the one that had the greatest impact on me probably wouldn’t mean a thing to someone who hadn’t lived through the time. It shows President Lyndon Johnson alone at a gleaming White House conference table. Beside him is a big, old reel-to-reel tape recorder (yes, that was back before CDs, before cassette tapes, before the miniaturization of everything). Johnson is slumped on the table, head in arms, the picture of desolate horror, as he listens to a tape sent back from Vietnam by his son-in-law Charles Robb, U.S. Marine Corps. That image will make about as much sense to the visiting school child as the one of the happy family sitting around listening to the radio together, or the one showing “preparedness” in the form of a bomb shelter. It is the pictures from space that will seem familiar and normal to those with a 21st-century outlook.