I recently published an essay, “One Day This Kid Will Talk,” about queer coming-of-age. It uses the work of several artists, as well as my very personal experience, to try to build a broader understanding of the topic. I published the piece as an interactive website, accompanied by an audio recording of me reading the essay aloud. How could I try to represent my queer coming-of-age experience with a single photograph? Its reality is one of a deeply nuanced, complex, and storied journey through and of my life. Though I have lived that experience, it took weeks of careful work to authentically represent it through the essay. For a photograph, what moment could I choose? Is there even a moment?
James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a 1941 exploration of the life of white families in the rural South during the Great Depression by the two men sent by Fortune magazine. Between a few dozen of Evans’ photographs and over four hundred pages of Agee’s writing, this endeavor attempts to document more desperate lives for much higher-class Fortune readers. Rendering actual human lives is never simple, but avoiding dehumanization or disrespect of lower classes reaches treacherous territory.
If a stranger were to arrive to capture me at this particular moment, perhaps they could record a fragment of my current state. They could assign whatever commentary of their photograph’s significance to growing up queer, transgender, and white as a teenager in America in 2019, but to what end? Though Agee explores a different context, similar questions lingered for him, attempting to do journalistic justice to his subjects. “Journalism can within its own limits be ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but it is not in the nature of journalism even to approach any less relative degree of truth. Again, journalism is not to be blamed for this” (207). “The very blood and semen of journalism…is a broad and successful form of lying” (207). A random journalist chronicling lives they know nothing about, Agee implies, is surely disastrous.
The format of the book Agee and Evans published, with a collection of photographs alongside such an avalanche of prose, attempts this through a careful pairing. Agee writes that words “cannot embody; they can only describe,” even if they could “be made to do or to tell anything with human conceit” (210, 209). Meanwhile, the camera, “handled cleanly and literally in its own terms, as an ice-cold, some ways limited, some ways more capable, eye, it is…incapable of recording anything but absolute, dry truth” (206).
If one photograph is all we ever knew about an enormous, nuanced topic, we are forever confined to this reduction to a single story. We unwittingly view both historical and current movements through these singular representations: the atomic bomb’s popular representation as the mushroom cloud it erupted into tells one story, but a graphic novel written by a survivor of that day tells so much more. The mushroom cloud in itself preserves an undeniable truth of the bomb with a fidelity a traditional artist could never manage; the cloud represents a certain reality, but alone, this truth reaches the territory of lie through communicating a small slice of the whole truth. Agee agrees journalistic documentation inspires a “temptation to invent” that possibly reaches the “obstructive, false, artistic,” but especially through photography, a lack of care easily leads into these simplistic truths (208). A candid photograph is a truth, but the “temptation to invent” comes through framing. Instead of seeing begging, a lack of food in the kitchen, or dirty circumstances, in one photograph included in the book, we see an appealing photograph of a young white person, sitting in a handcrafted chair on a deck, holding a dog. Two legs of a younger child jut into the frame on the right, implying the one is not alone. This representation brings readers closer to the subject and humanizes them.
In his future-predicting essay “As We May Think,” inventor and researcher Vannevar Bush wrote of a device called a “memex:” in the future, a man’s desk could be filled with microfilm with an electronic retrieval system to find and remember information. It was a step beyond a filing cabinet toward digital note-taking, though still entirely physical. The man could add any kind of media to his memex—“books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers…longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things”—and “the matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm” (Bush). If a man wished to save my essay to his memex, he could scan highlights into his “record.” But these fragments could never begin to communicate the true depth of the essay, much less the entirety of the experience it attempted to represent.
The mistake of Bush with his Memex was to construct a fantasy of totality. Armed with only the knowledge deriving from manually collected snippets and personal archives, the device’s users would be given an illusion they had all the information necessary to come to a conclusion about the topic at hand. The idea of understanding, archiving, or truly communicating totality is the ultimate fallacy, and one Agee speaks to poignantly in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Each photograph Evans included tells a story, perhaps multitudes, but these realities will always be selective, and as such, reductive. Even with the best of intentions, no matter the paragraphs Agee spends describing, readers will make assumptions, Agee must fail to include some details, and there will remain gaps, faults, and distortions in representation. A project of social documentary, an outsider taking a photograph and assigning meaning to it and therefore the humans it portrays, requires the greatest level of care. Agee built a reputation for that, and Bush attempted to assemble a device for “knowing” even much broader than that. Any representation, but especially one of social documentary, attempts to scale an infinite mountain of authenticity. The peak can never truly be conquered, but just as Agee did, we can only try.