America has long been seen as The Promised Land, and it certainly has been for photographers. But life hasn’t been easy for camera clickers Down Under.
New Deal Photography (Taschen 2016) is a wonderful new book that features hundreds of images and dozens of stories by the photographers who documented the dust bowls and aftermath of the Great Depression in the USA during the mid to late 1930s. Despite some photos suffering from the fold such a thick book requires, it’s an amazing collection of some of the best work by some of the best photojournalists America has ever known: Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans and more.
The book is also a testament to the vision of the Farm Security Administration, America’s version of the Australian Farmers Federation. Sensing what was taking place was gravely unique, FSA head Roy Stryker wanted to create a picture of rural America to pass on to future generations.
Published in newspapers, magazines and books, the photographs had a more immediate impact, showing urban Americans how the drought and Depression had impacted on the lives of their rural cousins, which in turn lead to new housing, employment and welfare programs for the displaced.
Cross a vast ocean and fast forward a few generations and a collective of photographers known as the MAP Group, under the direction of Andrew Chapman, began documenting the millennial drought for much the same reasons the FSA did. The big difference – and it’s a very big difference – is that the MAP Group photographers volunteered their time and work that resulted in the book Beyond Reasonable Drought (Five Mile Press 2009) and an exhibition that travelled all over Australia. Like the work of the New Deal photographers, the images showed urban Australians how the drought was impacting on the lives of our rural cousins.
Sadly, no government or rural agency, or arts or media organisation contributed one cent to the endeavour, yet 50 per cent of the successful book’s royalties was given to Australian Women In Agriculture. This is both an indictment on the perceived worth of photography in Australia, and a tribute to the dedication and resilience of those Australian photographers who produce work with no financial backing or prospect of financial reward.
Furthermore, few publications in Australia now offer photographers any space to publish their work. The photo essay was once the culmination of a body of work recorded over a period of time, much like an album is for a musician. But over the past 20 years the number of newspapers and magazines assigning several pages to a handful or more of photographs has drastically diminished.
And yet photographers still venture out at their own expense, taking images that shine a light on unique ways of life, on people pursuing fascinating passions, or just on facets of life that we know will one day be gone, in the hope those images will have an audience. Sure they can be uploaded to Pinterest or Flickr or Instagram or some other forum, and sure they get liked by someone in Botswana or shared by someone in Vilnius or commented on by someone in Houston, and that’s nice, but likes and shares and comments don’t buy a photographer a loaf of bread, let alone pay the rego on a 1987 Holden Camira.
Maybe one day the Australia Arts Council will commission people to document the lives of those early 21st Century photographers who struggled against all odds in the pursuit of their art? But far more likely, they’ll look for volunteers to do it.