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Differing Lenses 

'Picturing Arizona' tells the story behind Depression-era photographs

Way back when, books with just words were all the rage. Then came publications with words and photos, which increased both comprehension and effect. Then somebody uncovered that old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words, and photo books started appearing. However, when readers have only images without narration, they must get creative to unravel the who, what, why, when and where of each photo.

That, according to Katherine G. Morrissey and Kirsten Jensen, editors of Picturing Arizona: The Photographic Record of the 1930s, is where readers/viewers can go astray. The book, a collective project begun five years before it ultimately saw print, began innocently enough with the authors discussing Depression-era photography and a lack of published Arizona photographic work of that time.

Documentary photos, taken under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration, captured the visual legacy of blinding dust storms, ramshackle tent cities, bread lines with folks who had found hunger and lost hope--and a rush to California in an effort to escape those enduring visions. The stand-alone photos bring several dimensions into play as cultural documents, works of art and historical records. "These images intentionally reflect that universal experience and perspective of the Depression. But we were intrigued by photographs that reflected specific experiences. What we sought to do here was to examine a variety of Arizona images created by Arizona photographers (more than 100 are shown). Placing these photos alongside the works of federal photographers emphasizes various cultural agendas and illuminates the Depression's impact on the state's distinctive racial and environmental landscapes. These lenses are political, personal, public and promotional," Morrissey and Jensen write in their preface. Morrissey is an associate professor of history at the UA. Jensen is a former archivist in the UA Library Special Collections.

The camera's gaze captured questions, conflicts, fears and uncertainty encountered by the hardness of the times. "These pictures were meant to create and/or affirm ideas through images with a capacity to project the desired self while concealing poverty behind a borrowed dress or hardship," wrote history professor Martha Sandweiss in the book's introduction. What the reader sees is not necessarily representative of the complete scene, as in one image of a young Mexican-American girl photographed in front of a scenic backdrop that conceals an unsightly outhouse, totally obscured by the girl herself. "The authors persuasively show that photographs can conceal as much as they reveal. (What we have here) is not a history of Arizona illustrated with old photographs, but a history of the state written from those photographs," Sandweiss wrote.

The 250 or so pages take followers through a variety of illustrated vignettes ranging from migrant labor children and Depression-era women to agricultural and environmental scenes. Some photos showcase New Deal program results and the people they impacted, including Chicanos in Tucson, and Navajos and Hopis in the northern part of the state.

The Weekly's Margaret Regan, who writes often about Southwestern art, impressed author Morrissey enough that she was asked to write a chapter on images of Native Americans. "It's an honor to be included in a scholarly book, even though I'm the only non-academic in the bunch," Regan says. "The whole project was a lot like writing a Weekly cover story: tons and tons of research and then total immersion writing. While I already knew a lot about photography in Arizona, I learned a lot more about 19th-century expedition photographers like Laura Gilpin, developing a respect for who they were and what they accomplished."

Gilpin, an accomplished Western landscape photographer, and lifelong companion Betsy Forster ran out of gas decades ago in their old Buick as it traveled hilly Navajo country in the far northeast corner of Arizona. Readers can be thankful for that event, which turned into a footnote in photographic history and a chapter in this book called "Paper Faces." The resultant images are frank and honest, eliciting praise from contemporary Navajo photographers who agree that her work shows compassion and reverence for a way of life different from her own.

Morrissey also pens three chapters on subjects of personal interest, including scientific photography, a discussion of archaeology in the Southwest in the 1930s and how these projects were depicted in film, and early-day dams and erosion. Particularly poignant is her chapter on migrant labor children, with their daily dose of distress and destitution easily readable in their eyes.

Read the text. Study the pictures. Put the two together, and you'll gain an appreciation of how Arizona--and its tenacious inhabitants--weathered some of our country's toughest times.

More by Lee Allen

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