February 9, 2009

Images, Part 3: When You Weren't Looking

The photograph on the left is from the collection/sociological experiment, published by Richard Avedon in 1985, titled In the American West, and the subject of the photograph is Carol Crittendon, a bartender. 
In response to critics of the collection, who thought the images of working people classist, unsparing, and possibly intentionally demeaning, Avedon said: "All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth." 
No doubt a perusal of the family holiday card images on your refrigerator (or all of the faces on Facebook) likely confirms that sentiment...but what is to be made of that distinction between accuracy and truth? 
Many years before Avedon's visual experiment on the rodeo circuit in Texas, German photographer August Sander applied himself to a similar sociological task. He shot thousands of images of German people in the first few decades of the 1900's, and about 140 of these were collected for his 1929 book Face of Our Time.  The image below is from that book, and the subject of the photograph is a pastrycook.
The book was advertised as a collection that documented the "seven known groups" in the German social structure at the time, and was undertaken by Sander not "from an academic standpoint, nor with scientific aids...He has approached this task as a photographer...of the human environment, with an infallible instinct for what is genuine and essential. And he has brought the task to completion with the fanaticism of a seeker after truth..." The "truth" Sander was intending to reveal was that people look like what they do, and that class distinctions or types are immediately recognizable. 
But what Sander actually presented was an accurate representation of the remarkable diversity of human features among a particular regional group, regardless of what they wore or where they stood. And Avedon actually wound up (through his choice to shoot all of the subjects in front of a white sheet instead of in their own surroundings) presenting the same; whenever I look through In the American West, I am astonished and engaged by how he captured the weird and wide variety of human features that coexist in just one region of one nation. 
I would guess the choices made about self-presentation in holiday cards and on social networking sites are an endless subject for a whole range of social scientists, but even for the layman it is an interesting subject. And what fascinates me about both Avedon's and Sander's work is the idea that one was intending to seek after truth, and the other intended to capture accuracy, and yet the subjects had no say in their presentation, other than how they stood or sat for the camera. Does self-presentation, in contrast, make the image "truer"? 
Or is there a reason I keep having the same Freudian slip and mistakenly say "Fakebook"?

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