Lecture: Zoë Druick, Documentary and the Politics of Authenticity (Walker Evans: Depth of Field Exhibition)

This talk considers Walker Evans’ photographic practice in light of international currents of documentary in the 1920s and 30s. Evans was certainly not alone in balancing the demands of working with state and corporate sponsors in his time. But why were documentary media considered to be such a central technique for political visualization of the era? And how do issues of authenticity persist in documentary practice today? Zoë Druick is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology and Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

Vancouver Art Gallery

This was an extremely interesting lecture and I’m so glad it is preserved on video because I will probably go back and watch it later down the line again if I do the documentary module in level 2. Below are some brief notes from Druick’s lecture.

  • We are constantly thinking and talking about a hierarchy of ways of representing reality, some of which we think are more valid and more authentic than others. Take a look back and see how this was also the case in previous decades.
  • John Grierson in the 1920’s developed the origin of “documentary”. He defined it as “The creative treatment of actuality”. Good definition because it is so vague – it can be applied to just about any project. Grierson came up with this idea in response to political thinkers he studied with. American documentary tradition/British documentary tradition/Canadian documentary tradition were kept quite distinct but there was actually quite a flow of ideas and films and photos later between these spaces, also the USSR.
  • There are hierarchies of reality based forms:
    • Educational film
    • Government Information film
    • Industrial film
    • Newsreel
  • Documentary is a more heightened sense of authenticity than any of the other forms.
  • Real goal is to produce something which is geared to the present moment, but that will have some sort of more lasting artistic kind of ambition or accomplishment. This is done by combining information with emotion.
  • Experiments in USSR in art forms: see Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov – non fiction films of post revolution era. The focus was always on the revolution, reform of society – better for the common man, e.g. Rodchenko posters.
  • British films – documentary films took up residence in the Post Office. Made films showing the patterns of modern life, in particular social problems, political solutions e.g. film Night Mail.
  • Mass Observation group in Britain – tried to understand what ordinary working class people were thinking about the monarchy during this period (abdication of King Edward VIII). See Humphrey Spender’s Worktown People Photographs from Northern England 1937-38.
  • Indexical media that could show you something of the real world, to enable you to understand the crisis, to make it more than newsreel and different from propaganda.
  • American case – there was no official state sponsorship initially. However, US government was pushed to provide sponsorships as a result of harsh economic conditions and strife. People didn’t know what was happening across the country re the Great Depression. New Deal established relief agencies to publish information – later became FSA (1935-1938). Photos were circulated in magazines when news stories occurred. The goal was to identify the social problem and come up with a political solution.
  • Walker Evans was always distancing himself from the politics or the idea that his art was being tainted politically or was propaganda.
  • He pursues a non-intimate form of representation where he is always putting people into much larger contexts, either doing that in single images or he is doing that in sequencing of his images. Building little narratives that give you some insight into what people are going through.
Men in front of Savoy Barber Shop Vicksburg, Mississippi by Walker Evans


  • Signs in image are giving inter textual points of other information which help give you more context – sign on left reads New Deal Barber Shop. There is no appeal by the people in the image to the viewer – just going about their daily lives – not soliciting pity or concern.
  • Evans uses montage within single images – see A graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania November 1935. One can see the whole life of a town – where they live, where they work and where they dies and it provides this huge overview and then works on two levels:
    • as the document of this particular town;
    • as a larger comment on human life.
  • By way of comparison with the film that was made by the Works Progress Administration (flooding of the Mississippi – see Erosion near Jackson, Mississippi (erosion through over-logging); The Bessie Levee augmented with sandbags during the 1937 flood, near Tiptonville, Tennessee (building up of the levees to contain the river – small people in the much larger landscape) and Forrest City, Arkansas (flood victims).
  • Conveys a current and pressing event at the time – displacement of victims, construction of camps to house and feed them. But at the same time the way e presents them in the larger landscape which includes the layers of the tents and the wood depersonalizes it again, making it into a bigger and universal image of human displacement.
  • Strategies: social problem –> political solution. Case studies – Let us now praise famous men – atypical work for Evans – only work where he names the people and treats them as a case.
  • Another strategy – spatial strategy. Highlighting the multitude of different categories of individuals who are all operating within a kind of bounded spatial location. Evans was very influenced by August Sander and his project, People of the 20th Century. Can see Sanders’ influence in Evans work – Dock Workers, Havana 1933 and Coal Loader, Havana 1933. Full frontal, unadorned form of portraiture with generic titles without sentimentality. Not images that evoke a lot of pathos.

  • Another kind of spatial narrative which Evans was inspired by is typified by the City Symphony film. The spatial organization is the city and usually the time period is a single day in the city. Not political enough according to Grierson. See Lunch Counter and Men Eating lunch on steps.
  • Subway Portraits – don’t establish a relationship between photographer and subject (because of hidden camera) – no communication. Organization in grids – cinematic style of this work – each individual image is reliant on the assemblage for its meaning. Same can be said for Labor Anonymous.
  • Evans had an abiding interest in serial imagery.
  • With regards social problems – Evans rejects politics but he is always interested in people’s struggles and putting working class people into a bigger context. He does use the case study even if under duress with James Agee.
  • Uses a lot of spatial representation. His images are often put into relation with other images that give us a sense of overall multiplicity that is some how synchronized, whether through shared social experiences or shared spatiality.
  • All this becomes a distinctive way in which Evans works through the problem of documentary, which is not just about trying to find some thing beautiful in the every day but also about exploring and trying to convey some larger meaning about what you find.
  • Documentary has come full circle. First were re-enactments, then were shot as the events were happening, now back to re-enactments again. Rarely sponsored by states any more.
  • Documentary is a way and a genre to help us discuss and think through just how we come to know what we know and what we do with what we think we know about the world.
  • Evans show a struggle to establish documentary forms that on the one hand make social statements, and on the other hand and at the same time make lasting works of art, which is a hugely challenging goal.
Reference List

Vancouver Art Gallery (2017) Lecture: Zoë Druick, Documentary and the Politics of Authenticity [user-generated content online] Creat. Vancouver Art Gallery.  8 February, 2017.  1 hr 44 min 11 sec Available at https://vimeo.com/203204777 (Accessed 14 May, 2017)

Vancouver Art Gallery (n.d.) Video Documentation [online] Available at: http://vanartgallery.bc.ca/events_and_programs/videos.html [Accessed 14 May, 2017]



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