Jeff Allred


On his book American Modernism and Depression Documentary

Cover Interview of March 09, 2010


Like many critics working at the crossroads of media history, modernism, and photography, I found myself peering over the shoulder of early twentieth century cultural critic Walter Benjamin at many points.  In closing, I would like to share one particular moment that helped me to keep in view the central aims of my work.

In his brilliant essay “A Brief History of Photography” (1931) Benjamin analyzes the photographic portraits of his German contemporary August Sander, whose collations of German physical and occupational “types” Benjamin found resonant with the cultural moment.  Somewhat enigmatically, Benjamin declares in regard to one of Sander’s published collections, “Sander’s book is more than a book of pictures; it is a book of exercises.”

I began to understand the rich implications of Benjamin’s statement as I worked with Depression-era documentary in the United States, observing that documentary books are not valuable as eyewitnesses to a stable social reality but as little thought experiments in a subjunctive mood: Could this be?  What if this were?  Might this have been?  What if I were you? 

For Benjamin, Sander’s photographic exercise books presented an alternative to the fascist belief in a “pure” identity that reveals itself fully and immediately to the naked eye.  For me, modernist documentary books make similar demands of readers, asking them to see themselves in and through others, implicated in an often traumatic, shared history.  It’s my hope that _ American Modernism and Depression Documentary_ can serve as a “book of exercises” in this sense.

© 2010 Jeff Allred