Last week I discovered the Mead Gallery, at the University of Warwick, are showing an exhibition – “The Human Document, the photography of persuasion from 1930s America to present day”. As it includes around 100 prints from the FSA (Farm security Administration) I just had to see it. And what an absolute thrill it was. Having studied the FSA photography 37 years ago as an undergraduate I just could believe that I was finally standing in front of prints by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott and others. To see the prints and examine close up – as all photographers do – was overwhelming; the quality of the images is superb and you can see detail that is not possible in even the best reproduction.
The biggest surprise is that Mead have not been shouting about this exhibition from the roof tops. The other surprise, or maybe not, was that very few people were there, maybe 5 in the hour and a half it took get round. I would have thought there would be queues of college courses bringing students. Maybe they do not teach about the FSA now? Is documentary – photographing the real – not considered as art? That was certainly one comment I heard in the gallery, “…can’t understand why the exhibition is here because it’s not art”.
That is the second time the ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ thing has come up. For some documentary is not art because it deals with real life or is ‘too real’ for modern photography students. Has the conceptual overtaken photography so that documentary has become just too passé? I sincerely hope not because in these times of rapid political change we need photographers to document and question what is happening.
The modern photography included works by Paul Graham, Chris Killip and others. I thought that theses two fitted in the overall theme but the other photographers seemed out of place. They seemed to be trying to produce something more than a document and as such lost impact. I heard a visitor say that they looked staged, false, not authentic which was an interesting comment.
What is evident is the enduring power of the FSA images, the stark fact that they are equally applicable today as they were 60 years ago. There have been similar photos from migrant camps in Calais and other places and I am sure there are images of poverty and desperation everywhere if you take the time to look. History repeats itself,