howardbecker - C ATEGORIES AND COMPARISONS How W E FIND...

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CATEGORIES AND COMPARISONS: How W E FIND MEANING IN PHOTOGRAPHS Photographers and social scientists share this prob- lem: how to arrange large amounts of material (photo- graphs or qualitative and quantitative social science data) so that they communicate the analyst's under- standing of the situation studied to a reader or viewer willing to study the arrangement seriously? A compari- son that will seem unlikely to most readers—between the making and reading of sequences of documentary photographs and the making and reading of statistical tables—reveals the crucial analytic role of the construc- tion of categories of comparison by both the maker and reader of such representations. Suppose that I have made a large number of photographs—a serious documentary photographer would make many thousands of exposures pursuing a big topic. I have edited them: selected those images I think best convey the ideas I have arrived at about my topic as I went about making them. How can I arrange all this stuff, put it together so that it communicates something I want to communicate to the people I want to communicate it to (and, of course, communicate what they want me to communicate well enough that they will pay attention to my work)? Walker Evans had just this problem when he created American Photographs (Evans 1988 [1938]) from images he had made over a period of several years, all over the eastern United States, south and north (the farthest west he got was New Orleans): New York, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere. (Not all in the United States; you have to interpret the title generously, since three of the pictures were made in Havana). He wasn't completely clear about what he was after when he made all these pictures. According to a profound student of his work, Alan Trachtenberg, Evans was trying to answer the questions that the Great Depression had raised for a lot of American intellectu- als: What is special about the American people? What are their characteristic beliefs, their folk history, HOWARD S. BECKER their heroes, their work patterns, and their leisure? . . . Evans's concept of America cannot easily be defined by enlisting him in any particular camp, but it can be said that his work belongs within the general pattern of —the search for an authentic American culture and one's own Americanness. (Trachtenberg 1989: 247) Another way of seeing Evans' intentions is to read the list of what he was after contained in the letter he wrote to a friend while he was making all these pictures: People, all classes, surrounded by bunches of the new down-and-out. Automobiles and the automobile landscape. Architecture, American urban taste, commerce, small scale, large scale, the city street atmosphere, the street smell, the hateful smell, women's clubs, fake culture, bad education, religion in decay.
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