Monday, August 8, 2011

Words and Pictures

Since my recent post on newspapers and Kindles, I've been thinking more about how changes in technology affect what we know about what's going on in the world. In my lifetime there have been two major changes in how news was delivered -- television and the internet, and I think the common assumption is that both of them diminished the news and, in effect, made people dumber.

I'm not sure that's a valid assumption. In fact, there are lots of reasons why it shouldn't be true. Television is driven more by pictures than words, but there's nothing inherently shallow about photographs. Has anyone ever doubted that photojournalism enriched stories, and often even told stories that words couldn't?

Photography has helped people to understand and care about complex issues. Look, for example, at the photographs of Jacob Riis, a pioneering photojournalist and social reformer, best known for his book, How The Other Half Lives, published in 1890. Riis documented -- in words and pictures -- the working and living conditions of poor immigrants in New York City at the end of the 19th century. Riis wrote passionately about the squalid conditions immigrants endured, but he was also quite conservative, and thought that change should come not through government action, but through the philanthropy and good graces of the enlightened rich. He thought his role in speaking and writing about, and photographing, the poor, was mainly to help more affluent people understand the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in the slums and act on their knowledge. He also shared the prejudices of his times, often writing stereotypically and offensively about the different ethnic groups he photographed. But his photographs tell the more important story.

Three unknown, unnamed boys sleep in the gutter outside an apartment building sometime in the late 1880's. Those words don't prepare you for seeing the children, who, in the stark black and white of Riis's photo, almost seem to blend into the rough and broken brick wall behind them, visually symbolizing the way they were camouflaged from affluent America. The boy in the center clutches the boy on the left, but there's no way of telling whether it's for warmth, or some shreds of reassurance. Their little bodies are twisted. They are painful to look at.

Riis was one of the first photographers to use flash, which allowed filming places previously too dark to film, and he uses light and shadow brilliantly in this photo. The space the boys occupy is dark and dismal, which emphasizes the bleakness of their lives. Over their heads, there is a staircase leading into an apartment. It's certainly not an idyllic location. Garbage cans squat by the stairs. But it is a lighted space -- one that appears heavenly in contrast to the boys' condition.

In other Jacob Riis photos, you'll find a broader, but always dismal, view of New York tenements at the end of the nineteenth century, where roughly built wood shacks lean against older buildings, trying to squeeze more living space into an over-crowded city, where walls crumble (and sometimes literally tumble down), and people sleep huddled together on bare floors.

It doesn't matter so much what Jacob Riis thought should be done about the poverty and despair he photographed. His compassion and artistry superseded his ideas. The photographs are as moving today as they were more than a century ago. They defined, and to some extent still define, our mental image of poverty.

Early in the next century, Lewis Hine continued Riis's work, chronicling injustice. He is best known for his portraits of child laborers, who worked in coal mines, meatpacking houses, textile mills, and canneries. Hine's goal was different from Riis's. He wasn't trying to change the hearts of rich landlords and philanthropists, but move ordinary Americans to demand laws that would end the horror of child labor. Although he died in poverty in 1940, by the end of his life Hine had seen his goal achieved little by little, with a great deal of help from his work. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act made it illegal to sell items made by children across state lines. By 1938, minimum ages for work were finally established.

Here are some of the Lewis Hine photographs that changed history, all taken between 1908 and 1912.

A six-year-old cotton picker in Oklahoma:

A newsboy, asleep over his papers in New Jersey:

An eleven-year-old mill worker in North Carolina:

Child mine workers in Pennsylvania:

Girls at a knitting factory in Tennessee:

Riis and Hine were at least as influential as the writers of their era who advocated for reform.

Other photographers followed their lead:

Dorothea Lange, giving a face to the devastation of the Dust Bowl:

Charles Moore, whose photographs shook the conscience of a country during the civil rights struggle:

Nick Ut, who showed America what it was doing in Vietnam:

Obviously there's no reason why a medium built primarily around pictures has to be more shallow than one based on words.


Domenico Maceri said...

I think there is definitely something to the idea that TV and the Internet have made people thinking less but maybe in some way more easily informed. The challenge is to take advantage of all tools available in the right amount. If someone lives by the TV and the computer, I think it will decrease the brain's flexibility. I knew some of the pictures you posted but not all of them. Black and white photos can be very powerful, even more powerful than color photos.

Linda said...

I've often wondered why black and white photos seem so powerful. I think maybe color is a distraction. Simplifying the image, ironically, makes you notice more detail.