Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, review by Elsa Dorfman
by Andrea Fisher
Pandora. London and New York. l60 pp. l987.
The title of Andrea Fisher's book is derived from the title of the classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Walker Evans and James Agee, first published in l94l and republished in l960. Hers is a very misleadihttp://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0863581234ng title---the only thing both books have in common is that both have text and photographs of the United States during the Depression. The subtitle, Women Photographers for the US Government l935 to l944 is misleading too. That title implies that Fisher had written the book that I wish she had written: that book would be about the women who participated in the Farm Security Administration photography project headed by Roy Stryker. It would be devoted to the work of these women--and answer the questions who these women were, how they got their jobs, how they worked, how many pictures they took and where, what their problems were in the field and what their pictures looked like. It would include information on what they did during the rest of their careers and what they thought about their work and the FSA in hindesight.
The book that Fisher HAS written deals with NONE of this. It is hard to extract from the rhetoric of the eighty page text that accompanies the eighty three photographs by eight women exactly what Fisher is trying to do and what her major points are. She writes:
"The following essay is concerned less with the biographies of individual photographers than with the terms in which each was made visible within her respective moment. The social crisis of the l930's consisted not only in economic collapse, but equally in an uncertainty surrounding personal identity. At the centre of that uncertainty lay fractures and change in prevailing notions of the masculine and feminine. Amidst this troubling flux in the identity of gender, each woman photographer became a site at which a naming of the feminine might be publicly propounded and secured.... The essay addresses our desire for memory, and for the coherence of historical narrative: a dream of uniting all the lost fragments of our past, impelled by our fractured present. It addresses the seduction of those materials we summon from the past as a play of our present-day desire.
You can see that this isn't a photo history book (and it isn't about gender in any clear way either). It's too bad that Fisher went off on this tack. Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott are well known and Lange particularly is included in the histories of photography. But Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Pauline Erhlich, Martha McMillan Roberts, Ann Rosener and Louise Rosskam are FORGOTTEN WOMEN and it would be worth while to try to build a case for another woman being written into the history of photography. (After all, in the REVISED l982 edition of the authoritative history of the medium by Beaumont Newhall only TEN women are MENTIONED.) Esther Bubley, on the basis of the images Fisher reproduced, might be a candidate.
Fisher does none of this. I get the feeling that the photographs are simply an occasion for the rhetoric. For one thing, the images are not presented in portfolios by each artist. Instead they are sequenced to reinforce the text. So it is impossible to get a sense of the eye of one particular photographer without taking the book apart and rearranging the images by photographer. And the number of images by each woman is grossly unequal without any explanation, ranging from twenty five images by Esther Bubley to two images by Pauline Erhlich.) Curiously, the book concludes (for reasons unclear to me) with one frequently reproduced image by Arthur Rothstein of Grand Central Station. Several of the images by Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott are familiar which is a pity because they each produced a large body of work yet it is hard to find images that haven't been published and republished. Several images are repeated severely cropped as if to reiterate passages in the obtuse text. This technique is very annoying and does NOTHING to help us understand or enjoy the photographs---and it doesn't make the text any more obvious. It seems to imply that Fisher writes but she doesn't look. In one instance it seemed to me that Fisher was dead wrong about what was happening in the photograph.
Fisher's essay has four sections and one four and half page section titled, "An Uncertain Exchange," is about her meeting with Esther Bubley in August l985.
"It was in no sense an interview, but rather an attempted exchange; for an interview would presume that the truth of these images, and the truth of their moment, could be spoken solely by their author. To conduct an interview, as conventional historian, would be simply to produce another document: an unassailable account whose veracity would underpin that of the doucmentary images themselves. To interview Esther Bubley would be to abdicate the unfolding of diverse fascinations in her images, before the authority of her final reading. Perhaps, on the contrary, it was my attempt to confirm those most private fascinations through our mutual recognition.'
So far as I know, in the photographic literature there IS NOT ONE published interview with Esther Bubley. (And from Fisher's book we cannot even tell if Bubley is still alive.) Alas, we have absolutely no idea how much biographical information Fisher collected but decided to set aside for the sake of her text. Her book has scant notes (all from obvious sources) and no bibliography.
Yet, the twenty images by Esther Bubley make the book worth having.