Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 2, Issue 1
fall 2011
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editor, John-Albert Moseley
Layout Design: Nick Appleby

What the Photogrammar Project Means to Me

by Laura Wexler, Professor of American Studies & Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies

I spent my junior year in college as a special student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, inquiring into the meanings the humanities develop within a largely technological culture.  The U. S. was mired in an escalating war in South East Asia and experiencing violent social conflict at home.  It was in this environment that I began to study photography, lugging a 5”x7” view camera and tripod around Boston and shooting pictures with my head under a black cloth.  Almost immediately I realized that although I was interested in making fine images through a lens, my more intense focus concerned what went on at the closer side of the camera – in the mind of the camera’s operator as it fastened on the possibility of a photograph in the first place.  That was in 1968, and my drive to understand the implications of this event has never abated.  As a critic and historian of photography, I feel lucky to have been able to spend many years at Yale making intellectual spaces available in my classes and in the Photographic Memory Workshop for scholars to investigate not only the images that photographers make, but also what making them has to do with the sensibilities and the politics of the social world as divided along the lines of gender, race, class, sexuality and nation. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities “Photogrammar Project” grant to study the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information photographic archive that I, with graduate students Lauren Tilton (American Studies) and Taylor Arnold (Statistics), along with Stacey Maples, from the Map Collection staff of Sterling Memorial Library and Ken Panko, head of Academic Computing, have won is a very special opportunity.  The FSA - OWI archive of approximately 170,000 photographs, taken between 1935 and 1943 and now stored at the Library of Congress, represents one of the greatest experiments in visual documentation ever undertaken by the federal government.  The original intention was to produce support (propaganda) for the Roosevelt administration’s policies during the Great Depression.  After Pearl Harbor, the agency’s portfolio shifted to making and circulating visual propaganda for the war effort.  It was a grand mid-century modernist enterprise of state-centered liberal governmentality, in Foucault’s sense.  It located, classified and characterized the increasingly destitute population as deserving or not of social welfare, and the enterprises of the New Deal’s alphabet of social agencies as deserving or not of the taxpayers’ support.  It also showed Americans to themselves during a decade when social bonds were fraying fast and it redrew those bonds at their entry into World War II.  What makes the FSA-OWI archive even more exceptional in regard to such purposes is that the agency was able to hire some of the most brilliant photographers of the time to go out in the field and make the photographs.  FSA-OWI images by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, John Collier Jr., Gordon Parks, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans, Esther Bubley, John Vachon, Louise Roskam, Margaret Bourke-White and other less well-known but very talented photographers abound.  For a historian of the visual, the FSA-OWI file has all the benefits and drawbacks of the state gaze under which it was created.  It is primary source documentation for the lived realities of that era, but also it is evidence of the magnet-like power of the eye of the state, pulling divergent perspectives towards its own ideological ends. Were the poor so exemplary?  Were the farmers so white?  Were the workers so male? Was the country so united against fascism as we have found it in the file?  Oughtn’t we now to take another look at the way the Great Depression and the war effort appeared in those images?

The Photogrammar Project will use powerful new technologies of digital mapping and visual and quantitative analysis to study the mindset of this iconic, beloved – and enormous and complex – set of images of the United States at mid-twentieth century and see how it changes over time.  New patterns of gender, race, class, sexuality and nation that are reflected and reinforced by the photographs, and new opportunities for questioning the moment of picture-making, will emerge as we learn to handle and analyze data sets of images that are much larger than can be comprehended without computers.  The project is also an ideal combination of theoretical, practical and public scholarship in the emerging field of digital humanities.  The programs we write will be open source so that others with large collections of photographs can also use them for their own investigations.  They will be interactive, and invite comments and additions by the public.  I am very proud to have this project entrusted to my direction by the NEH at this point in my career, and to have such a brilliant team of students and colleagues to carry it out.  For me personally, it also associates the visual and the technological in a way that is reminiscent of and totally true to the environment at MIT that originally inspired me to study photography, which is especially nice.

To learn more about this project, visit
http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/sep/15/government-photos-take-new-form-online/
http://www.yale.edu/graduateschool/publications/news/201111/photogrammar-image-database.html

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