When I was a girl, my father kept a book on documentary photography in his office. I remember sneaking in, sliding the book from the top shelf, and looking. There were certain images I returned to again and again: Matthew Brady’s photo of dead Civil War soldiers on the battlefield of Antietam; Jacob Riis’s picture of squalid living conditions in New York City’s slums; Walker Evans’s image of poor sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama; and Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a screaming, naked, 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running toward the camera after a napalm attack burned her village, clothes, and body. Growing up in a strict, religious household in Georgia (before the Internet), these forbidden photographs were riveting and disturbing, their effect nothing less than sandpaper against my skin. I knew my father had been to Vietnam, though he never spoke of it. Was this the kind of violence he saw? Was this what the larger world was like? A strange mix of awe, fear, pity, and outrage welled up inside me.
What happened next is what happens with most famous images in our culture–the photographs became so familiar that they lost their bite. What was once radical became commonplace. But two years ago, when I first saw these rare color photographs taken by Farm Security Administration photographers in the early 1940s, I was reminded of that book in my father’s office. Russell Lee’s photograph of a homesteading family in Pie Town, New Mexico, stung me like a hornet. In vibrant Kodachrome, these migrant workers, Japanese Internment Camp prisoners, farmers, and families seemed more contemporary. More real. More like us. The gulf of time and over-familiarity closed. Suddenly, it was 1940 and I was sitting right across from Jack Whinery and his family in their radiant calico, suspenders, and stripes. The writer Lewis Hyde once said that we’re only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved. This quality also defines great art. Whether an image makes us feel pleasure, discomfort, or outrage, it temporarily lifts us from the apathy of our daily routine. It’s like a pinch on the back of the arm. When we feel it, we know that we’re awake.
Michelle Aldredge is a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, a popular website about art, ideas and the creative process. From 1999-2012 she worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist retreat.