Sunday, July 27, 2014

REPORTING ON HUMANITY



By Arthur H. Gunther III
     Much progress in humanity, though it is often one step ahead, two back, comes from symbolism, such as the iconic nature of photographs that pull at our conscience and tell us, “We must do better.” For decades now, the mostly black and white work of Dorothea Lange, the famed social documentary photographer of the Great Depression, has been such a tug. And rightly so, for Lange, employed by the Farm Security Administration but also shooting from her soul, was gifted in capturing candid and semi-posed expressions of many trails of tears, suffering, endurance, just plain grit, survival and resurrection in that economic debacle. Yet, her work, like that of any reporter of an age, must always be subject to re-interpretation, not only to dispel myth but to add to fact, to the constant, deeper understanding that betters humanity. 
     Recently, I was introduced to the works of three people, one a British graphics designer/photographer who has reset Lange’s images as color true to the age, and a sister team that wrote and photographed in similar fashion during the Depression.
    Neil Scott-Petrie from Cambridgeshire has produced an amazing tribute to Lange, and even more so, her social realism subjects, 1935-1939, by taking Lange’s black and white photographs and deftly and intricately adding accurate color. In doing so, he has brought realism to realism, and the viewer sees these iconic images of the huge ex-farmer migration from Oklahoma to California as if they were taken today.
      Previously, when we looked at Lange’s work, while we focused with empathy on the hungry, perhaps “lost” children and distracted adults in search of work, trying to survive in a great calamity, we also saw their period clothes, the Model Ts, filling station signs, etc. That caused us to set the age apart, apart from reality other than that moment. We saw the images almost as fine art pieces, set for a museum installation. But with Scott-Petrie’s reworking of Lange’s shots, we view another time in humanity’s long struggle relative to today. And that is much to the good. 
     As the author notes, “This book is not about improving Dorothea Lange’s work, her images are amazing and cannot be improved. This is about showing her work in a different light, in color, bringing the real events closer to the observer, giving you a more realistic view of how things were during the migration to California ... (after all) the world was not black and white.”
     Indeed. I would urge Scott-Petrie to seek  wider viewing of his added perspective of Dorothea Lange’s defining reportage, perhaps in a national gallery installation in London or New York. They would be a sure hit and would add to the story of humanity in struggle, a continuing novel that sees chapters even today in the worsening immigration problem in the United States.
     (Neil Scott-Petrie’s “Dorothea Lange, color, The Migrant Experience 1935-39” may be accessed via dorothealange.com).
     Lange was not the only social documentary reporter of the Great Depression. Also there were the Babb sisters, Sanora, a writer, and Dorothy, a photographer.  Joanne Dearcopp, a longtime friend of Sanora, reminds me that  Dorothy photographed migrant camps in the late 1930s and her sister wrote the novel, “Whose Names are Unknown.” Therein lie many stories. Sanora helped establish the FSA government camps for migrant workers in California, and her Dust Bowl refugee novel began there. Apparently, Random House was planning to publish this “exceptionally fine” writing but later claimed the market was saturated with the bestseller “The Grapes of Wrath,” the classic John Steinbeck novel on the same subject. In 2004, the University of Oklahoma Press published Sanora’s novel to strong appreciation and recognition that there were other incisive voices reporting on the Depression years and its social issues. 
     Sanora's sister Dorothy was said to have offered literary criticism to her, and the former’s photographs, some 250 or so, provided their own exceptionally compelling reportage of Dust Bowl refugees.
Both sisters were among the young writers of their time affected by Depression conditions. As a website for the Babbs notes, “Adversity and a concern for social justice joined these young writers in an informal freemasonry of goodwill and progressive ideals that has seldom existed before or since in American literature.”
     (For more information about Sanora and Dorothy Babb, visit http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/babb/gallery/)
     In this America of today, not recovered from a recession of a few years back that almost became a depression, in a United States that must make choices that better humanity rather than harm it, choices over a dwindling middle class, immigration, health care, political direction and world responsibility, revisiting the social documentary work of Dorothea Lange through Neil Scott-Petrie’s added perspective and through the writings and photographs of the Babb sisters, makes us understand better the journey so far and reminds us of the utter responsibility we have for each other.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, July 14, 2014

OFFSPRING, ON THEIR BIRTHDAYS


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     How do you thank a son, who at 43 this very day, July 14,  is light years ahead of who you were at that time? How do you speak, father to offspring, beyond a pat on the back and saying “Happy Birthday”? Effusive emotion is a non-fitting suit for both.
     Conceived in the uncertainty but -- still -- progression of youthful marriage, when a career with all its pulls and pushes was building, and with all the worries about this and that so much heavier than the carefree years just before, the birth nine months later of a little being never in your world changes that world, whether you are prepared or not.
     That the first son we had, and then his brother, too, would bring me, especially, to greater maturity and some accomplishment in meeting needs and standards is a gift from both. One that keeps on giving.
     Parents are proud of their children, as they should be. Today, expansive social media such as Facebook announces that to the entire world, and that sort of spotlight may be like endlessly watching the neighbor’s old 8mm home movies. It is far better, perhaps, to have others acknowledge, without prompting, that your children are good people.
     In our case, we are fortunate not only because the sons are such, but they don’t bring attention to the fact. After all, the first requirement of living is to be a good person, and the second is not to expect applause for that.
     It’s my hope that all parents out there see in their children the individuals they are, that they find their offspring secure in every way, for even with the child now well grown at 43, you recall tucking in at age two. You never stop tucking in the son, the daughter.
     If the child achieves, in career, in being a good person, in expressing traits others admire, in succeeding on the job, in being a parent himself, herself, if that happens, in progressing through the years by following the standards we all should expect, then you see on that person’s annual natal day a renewed gift coming to you as well. For parents such as myself, blessed with two fellows who have surpassed expectations, saying “Happy Birthday” to each of them is our own blessing.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

WHERE IS 'ANDY HARDY'?


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     ANY TOWN, USA -- Ironically, as Americans fatten up through fast food and lifestyle, it is also slimming down to overly thin in its public look, in its parks and on its once-shaded streets, those oak- and maple-lined boulevards that looked like "Andy Hardy’s" Hollywood set. That Mickey Rooney’s village of Carvel was purely fictional does not forfeit the fact that it was as all-American as ever can be.
     Once, many U.S. communities looked this way, and some, fortunately, still do or at least have semblance. Yet post-World War II suburban development helped push aside the picture of tree-lined streets leading to downtown neighborhood shopping. Developments like the typical “Huggy Bear Estates,” “The View” or “Hillside Condominiums” offer landscaped lawns and kept shrubbery but lines of well-placed trees along sidewalks and downtowns are not usually in the mix. Walkable neighborhoods rarely happen in this relative anonymity.
     That’s a loss, for while Andy Hardy was a fictional character and his father the judge, girlfriend Polly Benedict  and friend Betsy Booth, played by Judy Garland, were make-believe but ideal composites of small-town Americans, these people did exist in true communities, with vibrant downtowns and tree-lined streets leading to and from them.
     Suburbia took the population to development homes, and many downtowns then deteriorated. Even the oaks and maples so well laid out on the boulevards were neglected, first by a stressed tax base that deferred maintenance, then by disease and, worst of all, by the interference of some citizenry who presumed to speak for the majority.
     “That tree is blocking my view of the Hudson River.” “That tree’s roots are raising my sidewalk.” “That tree might affect my utilities.” And, so, all at once six stately oaks or maples or whatever are gone in a flash, victims of professionals in bucket trucks just doing their job with a work order.
     Elsewhere in both Gotham and suburbia, parks are without funding, as are shade tree commissions. In a nation that sees its upper class wealth grow exponentially by the Gordon Gekko factor, there are so very few old-style Rockefeller, Carnegie and other corporate trusts that built and saved our green space. They were parents to our downtowns, to our parks, and now there are many orphans.
     Pity. Foolish. Short-sighted. America is so much more than just self-sacrificing individuals, highly productive and caring. They are the essence of the old downtown, whether they lived there or not. Every suburbia has its roots in a tree-lined small American Main Street, and when, metaphorically, those tree-lined avenues are neglected, or the parks of both suburbia and gotham are  abandoned, we become less American.
     The “Andy Hardy” set is long closed. Can we be next?


  The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.