Review of Russell Lee’s ‘Children on the steps of a dilapidated house, Michigan?’

Lee Children

‘Children on the steps of a dilapidated house, Michigan?’, Russell Lee, 1937  

This photograph was taken by Russell Lee in 1937 as part of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) sponsored photography project which took place during the depression era.[1] This particular photograph is interesting because until recently it had been largely overlooked. The photograph was part of a collection of FSA prints that were sent to the New York Public Library (NYPL) but were then subsequently forgotten about because it was mistakenly believed that the prints were also in Washington.[2] However, in 2012 the NYPL decided to digitize those images which were not in the Library of Congress online catalogue and make them available to view online, and Lee’s photograph was one of those images.[3]  

The official purpose of the FSA photography project according to its founder Roy Stryker was to document the depression era by creating a ‘visual encyclopaedia’.[4] It has also been suggested that the FSA photographs were initially designed ‘to inform the more fortunate classes about the hardships of the poor and unemployed’.[5] Lee’s photograph could have been used for this purpose. Not only does the caption suggest that the children are poor, but the photograph itself informs the viewer about the hardships of the poor by conveying the theme of poverty through the depiction of the children’s clothes, their lack of cleanliness and the condition of their surroundings. The photograph gives the impression that the children are from a poor background as the boy’s jumper appears to have been worn away at the shoulder and the girl does not wear any shoes. Her feet are dirty which suggests to the viewer the idea that the child has been without shoes for a period of time, and makes you question whether the people looking after her can afford shoes. Also, the children’s surroundings give the impression that they are from a poor background since the house and the fence behind them look run down. The fence in the photograph is particularly striking. It appears crooked, uneven and cobbled together. Consequently the appearance of the fence in the photograph can be contrasted with the stereotypical image of the middle-class white picket fence which is often taken as a symbol of the good American life.[6] The fence therefore reaffirms the idea that these are poor people who are living a sub-standard life.

It is interesting to note that since this photograph presents a negative view of life in America through focusing on the effects of poverty, it contrasts with the later work that Lee did for the FSA in California during the early 1940s. Lee’s photography during that period has been classified under the ‘American Scene’ style, which was a style of photography that ‘took a positive view of life’[7] and ‘stressed what was right with America’.[8] As a consequence it was used to persuade people about the successes of the New Deal.[9] However, although ‘Children on the steps of a dilapidated house, Michigan’ contrasts with this style of photography, it is still highly persuasive but for a different purpose. At the time that the photograph was taken the FSA photographs were being used to persuade people about the need for agricultural reforms.[10]  Lee’s photograph would have also been useful for persuading others about the need for the agricultural reforms due to how the children are presented and the subsequent emotions that the photograph evokes in the viewer.

Migrant Mother

‘Migrant Mother’, Dorothea Lange, 1936  

Children can be seen as representatives of innocence; however the children presented in the photograph appear to have lost their innocence as their body language conveys the idea that they are worried and uncertain about the future. The boy stares out of the photograph, seemingly past the photographer at the future that awaits him. He bites his nails, a very childlike action, but given the worried look on his face this action also creates the impression that he is thinking. The girl could be innocently wiping something from her eye, but given the context of the photograph you are made to feel that she is crying, and her hunched body gives the impression that she personally bears the weight of the world directly on her shoulders. The way that these children are presented can be compared to the presentation of children in other FSA photographs. A striking contrast may be found by comparing the photograph to Dorothea Lange’s famous image the ‘Migrant Mother’.[11] In Lange’s photograph it is the mother who looks worried and gazes uncertainly out of the photograph and into the future. Her children turn away from this uncertain future, leaning on her for support and protection. In contrast, there is no adult figure in Lee’s photograph, which gives the added impression that the children are vulnerable and unprotected from the harshness of the world. As a result Lee’s photograph evokes a great amount of sympathy and compassion for the children, and for this reason the photograph is persuasive and could be used to convince people about the need for reform.     

Rule of Thirds Children on the steps

Whilst trying to be faithful to reality, documentary photographs can also be works of art. Susan Sontag argues that ‘even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience’.[12] Generally, the FSA images were noted for their ‘aesthetic qualities’.[13] Lee’s photograph is also aesthetically pleasing which is largely due to its composition. The locations of certain objects in the image appear to adhere strongly to the principle of composition known as the rule of thirds. Dividing the image into nine equal spaces by drawing horizontal and vertical lines on the image, it can be seen that the two children intersect the lines at key points. The girl’s position in the photograph intersects at the point where the second vertical line and the second horizontal line meet. Although the position of the boy is not on a point where the lines intersect, the first horizontal line bisects him almost perfectly as there is as much of the boy above as there is below the line if his toe is ignored. The background also appears to follow the rule of thirds since the start of the fence almost begins at the same point as the second vertical and the bottom of the steps run along the second horizontal. By adhering to the rule of thirds the photograph has a certain structure, which makes it more aesthetically pleasing to the viewer because according to the theory of the Golden Mean ‘a part is most pleasingly related to the whole in approximately a one-third or two-third proportion’.[14]

A further noteworthy feature of the photograph is the presence of strong lines and shapes. There are a number of vertical lines in the picture, for example the posts that make up the fence. Strong lines are also present in the top half of the house, but these planks of wood run horizontally and therefore provide an interesting contrast to the vertical lines in the photograph.  The steps also create a strong diagonal in the photograph which presents a further contrast to the vertical and horizontal lines in the photograph. This diagonal in the lower left hand corner can also be compared to the diagonal of the roof of the house next door in the top right hand corner.

Contrasting lines are not only found in the house and the fence but they are also present in the children. For example the girl’s feet hang parallel to one another, whilst the boy’s arm mirrors the diagonal of the steps and his thighs run parallel to the flat surface of the steps.  The boy also creates a triangle between his arm, thigh and body. There are other triangles in the photograph such as the one formed between the steps, decking and the left hand side of the photograph and the one created by the roof of building next door, the side of the house and the top of the photograph. The presence of these triangles adds to the geometry in the photograph, and the contrasting lines and shapes give the image a further artistic quality which makes the photograph more visually interesting.

Overall, when the long forgotten FSA photographs were digitized photography curator Stephen Pinson commented that ‘there are a lot of good images in the FSA that people don’t know because the same ones get reproduced over and over again’.[15] I think that Lee’s photograph is one of those good images since it is a striking, persuasive image that informs the viewer about the hardships of the depression era, and it serves as an example that documentary photographs do not just present reality, but that they can also be aesthetically pleasing and works of art.

Word Count: 1,468

Bibliography

 

Anon, ‘Children on the Steps of a Dilapidated House, Michigan?’, NYPL Digital Gallery, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=2034785&imageID=3969625&word=michigan%201937&s=1&notword=&d=&c=&f=&k=0&lWord=&lField=&sScope=&sLevel=&sLabel=&sort=&total=7&num=0&imgs=20&pNum=&pos=6, date accessed 9th January 2013.

Anon, ‘Dorothea Lange’, Luminous Lint: For Connoisseurs of Fine Photography http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/image/252566332520925355971/ date accessed 22nd January 2013.

Anon, ‘Is U.S’s Storybook Image Lost Forever?’, USA Today Magazine, vol. 135, no. 2742 (2007), p. 7.

Carlebach, Michael L., ‘Documentary and Propaganda: The Photographs of the Farm Security Administration’, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, vol. 8 (1988), pp. 6-25.

Cox, Fran, ‘Three Steps to Better Compositions’, PSA Journal, vol. 61, no. 7 (1995), p. 28.

Estrin, James, ‘A Historic Photo Archive Re-emerges at the New York Public Library’, The New York Times http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/a-historic-photo-archive-re-emerges-at-the-new-york-public-library/  date accessed 17th January 2013.

Farberov, Snejana, ‘And You Thought it was Bad Now…Never-Before-Seen Pictures Capture Everyday Life of Destitute Americans during the Great Depression’, The Daily Mail,  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2156728/Long-lost-Depression-era-photos-capture-everyday-life-destitute-Americans.html, date accessed 28th December.

Finnegan, Cara A., ‘Documentary as Art in “U.S. Camera”’, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 2 (2001), pp. 37-68.

Gelber, Steven M., ‘The Eye of the Beholder: Images of California by Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee’, California History, vol. 64, no. 4 (1985), pp. 264-271.

Sontag, Susan, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979).


[2] J. Estrin, ‘A Historic Photo Archive Re-emerges at the New York Public Library’, The New York Times http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/a-historic-photo-archive-re-emerges-at-the-new-york-public-library/  date accessed 17th January 2013.

[3] J. Estrin, ‘A Historic Photo Archive Re-emerges at the New York Public Library’, The New York Times http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/a-historic-photo-archive-re-emerges-at-the-new-york-public-library/  date accessed 17th January 2013.

[4] S. Farberov, ‘And You Thought it was Bad Now…Never-Before-Seen Pictures Capture Everyday Life of Destitute Americans during the Great Depression’, The Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2156728/Long-lost-Depression-era-photos-capture-everyday-life-destitute-Americans.html, date accessed 28th December.

[5] M.L. Carlebach, ‘Documentary and Propaganda: The Photographs of the Farm Security Administration’, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, vol. 8 (1988), p. 13.

[6] Anon, ‘Is U.S’s Storybook Image Lost Forever?’, USA Today Magazine, vol. 135, no. 2742 (2007), p.   7.

[7] S. M. Gelber, ‘The Eye of the Beholder: Images of California by Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee’, California History, vol. 64, no. 4 (1985), p. 268.

[8] Gelber, ‘The Eye of the Beholder’, p. 269.

[9] Gelber, ‘Eye of the Beholder’, p. 270.

[10] Carlebach, ‘Documentary and Propaganda’, pp. 9-10.

[11] Anon, ‘Dorothea Lange’, Luminous Lint: For Connoisseurs of Fine Photography http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/image/252566332520925355971/ date accessed 22nd January 2013.

[12] S. Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 6.

[13]C. A. Finnegan, ‘Documentary as Art in “U.S. Camera”’, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 2 (2001), p. 38.

[14] F. Cox, ‘Three Steps to Better Compositions’, PSA Journal, vol. 61, no. 7 (1995), p. 28.

[15] S. Pinson, quoted in S. Farberov, ‘And You Thought it was Bad Now…Never-Before-Seen Pictures Capture Everyday Life of Destitute Americans during the Great Depression’, The Daily Mail,  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2156728/Long-lost-Depression-era-photos-capture-everyday-life-destitute-Americans.html date accessed 18th January 2013.

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