Final Analysis Trying to understand the past
Roger Hicks considers… ‘Old Aunt Julia Ann Jackson, Arkansas’, c1937, unknown photographer
It’s an odd pose. Her back is all but turned on the camera, and the oil drum that is her stove is almost accorded more importance than she is. Her shack is described in the caption as a corn crib – that is, it was once a store for cattle food. She is an ex-slave. She is 102 years old: born, therefore, in 1836 and in her mid-twenties when the Civil War broke out.
The picture is frankly a bit rough technically, but was probably taken by a writer working for the US Works Progress Administration, recording in writing, sound and pictures the experiences of the last living ex-slaves. It’s a contact print (marked Kodak Velox on the back), probably shot on 22/122 rollfilm: six shots, each 3½ x 5½in, 9x14cm. In other words, it is to some extent the equivalent of giving a modern reporter a camera and at most some basic training, and telling them to illustrate their own articles. It’s a very far cry from the superb pictures taken by so many government photographers of the era. But – here’s the rub – wouldn’t you rather see this picture than no picture? Despite its technical shortcomings, there’s still an enormous amount of detail in the print. No matter how much you blow it up, you still can’t see much of her face, but you can see the veins in her big, gnarled hands and wrists. And, of course, the picture is still here, 80 or so years after it was taken. Longevity counts for a lot. Ask Aunt Julia.
Now, start trying to put yourself into her place. Those steps are steep. You don’t want the rocking chair to be too far from them, and you want to be in the shade. She may or may not have received an old-age pension: these were still a contested issue in the 1930s and the average age of retirement was 72. Do you want to remember some of the things you are being asked about? Remember, in her teens she was literally a slave girl. And the shack? Well, it ain’t great, but there are white families living in conditions as bad, or worse.
We can never fully understand the past; possibly, not even if we remember it. But unless we try to understand it, and to remember what we can, and to put ourselves in the place of others; well, as George Santayana said, ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Most things are better now than they have ever been; some are worse; and there’s no law saying that any of them have to stay that way. Roger Hicks has been writing about photography since 1981 and has published more than three dozen books on the subject, many in partnership with his wife Frances Schultz (visit his new website at www.rogerandfrances.eu). Every week in this column Roger deconstructs a classic or contemporary photograph. Next week he considers an image by Mikhael Subotzky.
‘As George Santayana said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”’