Essay: Looking Back

December 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Here is the failure of our times: We have forgotten how to grieve for others. My point of entry is a book of photographs made in another time in America, called “Long Time Coming,” compiled by Michael Lesy. The photos were made between 1935 and 1943 by now-celebrated photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, a relatively obscure government agency. The government hired such people as Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans to make an extraordinary record, essentially of poverty and desolation and disappointment.

Pictures taken on farms, in cities; solitary faces; faces in pairs and in crowds; together and apart, the way frightened people tend to be. “A Long Time Coming” is subtitled “A Photographic Portrait of America.” The portrait is stark. The mission of the Farm Security Administration was to help impoverished farmers at a time when nine out of ten farmhouses had no indoor toilets, women frequently died in childbirth, and children died of malnourishment and disease.

The average farm family’s per- capita income was $167. States like Oklahoma, Texas, and the Dakotas were turned into deserts by the Dust Bowl drought. Those who could no longer make a living from the land overcrowded the cities, where life was no better.. Read in the faces in this book all the despair of the dispossessed: Humans as a subspecies of themselves wandering in search of food, a place to rest, a place, period. It is instructive to look at these photographs today, in part because there is a drought going on right now.

It began in 1998, and if it is not yet of Dust Bowl proportions, still it has devastated the nation’s forests, livestock, and crops. About one-third of the country is in drought, as it was in the years before World War II. So take pictures of America today as another war is pending, and unemployment is up, and money is down.

Take them in black and white, as these pictures were taken, so that the element of color does not falsely enliven the faces. Would we see the same sense of loss and desperation in ourselves, the same unsmiling confusion that life, which was shouting such grand promises only a few years ago, has come to this?

Of course, first one would have to look, and the very decision to look requires an initiative of sympathy. A state of national alert such as we are experiencing now distracts one’s attention from the sorrows that do not require emergencies, the ones that have their own quiet, built-in threats. Would a government agency today employ photographers to make a portrait of the nation? If so, would we see contemporary counterparts of the Indian girl, the cherry picker, the Mexican barber, the cop, all staring at America and wondering if anybody is staring back.

Here’s one that gets to me, a picture of a man with his hand to his head. He is not Rodin’s “Thinker.” He seems to be beyond thinking, posed in a state of loss and perplexity that lies even beyond asking for help. The question he poses is, would we help if we could? Is the idea of helping among our priorities?

Here is the failure of our times: We have forgotten how to grieve for others. Take pictures of us not grieving for others. Put them in a book 50 years from now. Let’s look at them 50 years from now. What do we think of us? How do we look?

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.