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What makes ethnographic photography distinctive?

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This is a guest post by Todd Harvey, a folklife specialist and acquisitions coordinator at the American Folklife Center.

John Cohen in the American Folklife Center reading room.

John Cohen stopped by the other day to look at some photographs. Since the Library acquired John’s multi-format collection in 2011, we have gladly hosted his periodic visits. Here is a man who first walked through the Library’s doors in 1958 to access the Farm Security Administration photographs. Fresh out of graduate school, John wanted to see the real prints instead of published reproductions. Since that time he has remained in the Library’s orbit as a collection donor and contributing author to Library publications.

John and the American Folklife Center both played critical roles in the folk music revival of the mid-20th century. Consider some of the major collections in that arena that the Center has acquired in the past 15 years–Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie, George Pickow, Izzy Young, Oscar Brand, Pete and Toshi Seeger, Caffe Lena, the Indian Neck Folk Festival, etc—and consider that John knew them all. A founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, John has also created work as a photographer, musicologist and filmmaker.

Album cover with photograph of man playnig guitar
The New Lost City Ramblers album cover from 1958. Used by permission from Smithsonian Folkways Records.

For tangible evidence of John’s aesthetic ties to the FSA photographers, consult the first New Lost City Ramblers LP (1958) cover, designed by John, featuring a Russell Lee photograph. John is quoted in Ray Allen’s Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers & the Folk Music Revival (2010) saying, “It was about the ambience from which this music came. It was the Depression; it was virile, country. What it was trying to make a case for is the look of things: the way we dressed, the typeface, the images, the photographs.” (p. 47). What Allen describes as a bucolic country scene is revealed as something else when viewing the original. It is a migrant camp photographed in Lincoln County, Oklahoma in June 1939. The four individuals are ecological and economic refugees and the picnic blankets comprise some of their few possessions. Lee made a number of photographs of this family and the environment surrounding their camp:

Photograph taken by Russell Lee at a migrant camp photographed in Lincoln County, Oklahoma in June 1939.
Photograph taken by Russell Lee at a migrant camp photographed in Lincoln County, Oklahoma in June 1939.

John used another Russell Lee photograph on the Ramblers’ 1975 LP On the Great Divide. This time it was a 1941 image from the FSA labor camp in Caldwell, Idaho:

Farm worker and his wife in their cottage home at the FSA (Farm Security Administration) labor camp. Caldwell, Idaho.
Farm worker and his wife in their cottage home at the FSA (Farm Security Administration) labor camp. Caldwell, Idaho. By Russel Lee, 1941.

Lee also made more thorough documentation in Caldwell—not only music making but labor and children’s games.

But during his visit to the AFC John wanted to see prints of his 1956 photography made in Peru. As a Yale master’s student in design, he had become fascinated with the weaving practices in the Peruvian highlands and he traveled to villages where weavers still practiced the old ways in order to document the craft. This initial trip opened up relationships with the indigenous people that continue today—more than 60 years of interaction, which has resulted in films, sound recordings, and writings. The 2013 Steidl publication Past, Present, Peru provides a stunning introduction to this work.

A contact sheet showing black-and-white images
The images on this contact sheet were taken in 1956 in Ccatcca, Peru, for their documentary value more than for aesthetics. They show labor, ritual, and the physical context.

Film roll D053 contains thirty 35mm black & white photographs made in the village of Ccatcca, Peru in 1956. As John told the story, he was based in Cuzco and would hitch a ride in a milk truck each morning. They would deliver milk and John to remote villages, spend a few hours making rounds and return to Cuzco. In this way John was able to survey weaving practices in the surrounding area. He would get to a village and ask, “Who are the weavers here?” The resulting photographs, D053 for example, document pre-colonial weaving practices.

In this sequence the weaver pounds two sticks into the ground to anchor the warp, which is then blessed with an alcoholic drink. The weaver winds alpaca yarn onto the warp, binds, and then dyes the bound warps. John told me that these photographs were intended to complement his notes, taken for their documentary value more than for aesthetics. They show labor, ritual, and the physical context.

In 1977 Carl Fleischhauer became the second staff member of the fledgling American Folklife Center, an experiment by the Congress (Public Law 94-201) to celebrate the rich cultural diversity of our nation in its bicentennial year, and to acknowledge through law “that the diversity inherent in American folklife has contributed greatly to the cultural richness of the Nation and has fostered a sense of individuality and identity among the American people.”

strip of black-and-white images (close-up from the contact sheet)
A close-up

Sec. 3 of the law states that the term “American folklife” means the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction.”

Carl was an experienced and gifted photographer with a penchant for traditional music who had worked with the Center’s new director, Alan Jabbour, on collecting trips in West Virginia. When the Center decided to focus on original fieldwork—“the field surveys” as they were termed by staff—Carl began to create standards and methodologies for ethnographic photography that he taught to the fieldworkers hired by the Center to undertake its projects. Carl has remained at the Library of Congress since that time. Though the Center long ago lost him to the realm of public access through digitization (i.e. the Library’s American Memory and subsequent projects), Carl retired this year and returned as a part-time volunteer to the Center; full circle, to our great benefit.

The Center holds a million photographs, with more coming each year. As acquisitions coordinator, I am responsible for ensuring the highest standards and for that reason I recently sat down with Carl to discuss the elements of good ethnographic photography. For Carl, it documents human activity with an interest in process and includes cultural landscape such as the built environment. To the extent possible, the photographer documents oral transmission.

Here is a roll of Carl’s photography made as part of the Chicago Ethnic Arts project, July 1977. It carries the descriptive title “Northside Pentecostal Church sidewalk witnessing and consists of nineteen 35 mm color transparencies. This is urban regional religious ritual. Carl captured group praying, singing, and preaching, colloquially described as “witnessing.” He uses wide shots and close-ups, showing the inherently transmissive process, and he includes the built environment. This is a public space and Carl’s work documents both participants and multi-ethnic onlookers.  Here is a wide shot from this roll:

Man on sidewalk talking to a group of people.
Northside Pentecostal Church sidewalk witnessing.

And here’s a more close-up look:

Close-up of a man shouting into a microphone
Close-up of a man witnessing.














John Cohen and Carl Fleischhauer represent two among many photographers who strive to document human activity as it relates to oral transmission of expressive culture, a concern dating back to the earliest years of photography. They employ a still medium in a way that suggests action.  And like others in their company they do so with an artist’s eye. We can use the ideas of these two masters to better understand images by other photographers found in AFC field projects, including the three below.

Linda Gastanaga’s  Landscape at Line Camp with Horse Corrals shows vernacular architecture in the context of the natural environment.
Little Owyhee Line Camp with horse corrals, Paradise Valley, Nevada, 1978 (AFC 1991/021: NV8-LG21-3).

Mary Hufford’s photograph documents foodways and ethno-botany (AFC 1999/008: CRF-MH-C075-03):

Woody Boggs claiming a molly moocher under a freshly-sprouted mayapple, Bradley Mountain, West Virginia, 1998
Woody Boggs claiming a molly moocher under a freshly-sprouted mayapple, Bradley Mountain, West Virginia, 1998

This photograph by Martha Cooper provides an example of labor lore, depicting work in its physical environment (AFC 1995/028: WIP-MC-C069-20 ):

 barber Louis McDowell in his Paterson, New Jersey, barber shop, 1994
Barber Louis McDowell in his Paterson, New Jersey, barber shop, 1994.

I took John Cohen to lunch at the nicest restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. There we sat among the suits and power shoes. As they talked politics, I listened and John scrolled through current projects: films, photo books, recordings, books about his recordings, gallery exhibits. Endlessly and restlessly creative, John had spent the week in Washington alternately visiting with family and calling upon curators and producers.

But the conversation returned to photography. I asked him about aesthetics, as I have on other occasions, and he reflected upon the FSA photographers. Unlike the FSA images, which are public domain, John’s photographs, especially those of Beat poets and folk musicians, have street value. He laughed about the fact that a “vintage” print is desirable to collectors, while he was just making them for reference use. “But now my [thousands of] prints in the Library belong to everyone.”


Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for this nice introduction to the American Folklife Center’s photograph collections. I am indeed an AFC volunteer now, and one of my activities is refining and improving the metadata for the field projects. Not yet ready, but when my Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection improvements are online, it will be easy for researchers to learn that the man in the suit in the Northside Pentecostal Church street service is the minister, Bobby Goddard. I’m guessing, but Goddard might say that he was _preaching_ and that other attendees were _witnessing_, emphasizing their personal experiences.

    Looking at the metadata, I am reminded that I also made a sound recording of the on-the-street service, as well as a recording (and photographs) a service in the Northside Pentecostal church, although my log sheets indicate that the sound quality for these audio offerings is, um, uneven. I also interviewed Reverend Goddard at his home.

    One of the features of the AFC field project collections is the coexistence of photographs and sound recordings and, for some projects, measured sketch-drawings of vernacular architecture and video or motion picture film documentation.

  2. A terrific post that captures insights by John and Carl on ethnographic photography at a time when deep dialogue is especially valuable given the growing interest in this realm of work. Perhaps this could be developed into series of blogs on folklife and photography…featuring AFC/LOC collections? Thanks Todd!

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