Essays

Interrogating The Notion of Documentary Truth: Stacy Kranitz – ‘As it was give(n) to me’

By The ASX Team on May 13, 2015

Charged with sexualized iconography of women, drug use and stereotypical characterizations of Appalachians, her work employs the tropes of the documentary tradition to reimagine and subvert the established form and intent of the genre.

Appalachia as Other

By Kate Fowler

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

– Audre Lorde

Stacy Kranitz’s long-form photographic project As it was give(n) to me is a work that interrogates notions of documentary truth by challenging the role of the artist as author and historian. Producing images through the lens of Appalachia’s history of representation, Kranitz situates herself at the center of an ongoing dialogue on photography’s role in the marginalization of complex regions and identities. Charged with sexualized iconography of women, drug use and stereotypical characterizations of Appalachians, her work employs the tropes of the documentary tradition to reimagine and subvert the established form and intent of the genre. Through her integration of performance, archival imagery and text, she challenges prevailing modes of written and visual representation and unveils the fallacy of objectivity that has escorted the field for almost a century. By discussing the lineage of theoretical practice that has informed Kranitz’s work, this essay will approach the accessibility of her concept and challenge the idealistic moralism that accompanies journalistic representation.

On January 22nd, 2014 Jeff Rich published a sampling of images from As it was give(n) to me on the Oxford American’s photography blog, Eyes on the South. As the post went live, West Virginians found themselves engaged in a separate, more urgent battle against the extraction industry. It’s important to discuss the extraction industry in two formally different terms when regarding its relationship to Appalachia. The first form is physical extraction, which has stripped many of the region’s mountaintops and polluted its rivers. The second form is mediated extraction, whereby I’m referring to the visually and intellectually exploitative industries which have shaped people’s understandings of this rich geographical area and its inhabitants. Contextually, the Oxford American presented Kranitz’s work at a time of serious negligence on the part of the mainstream media, as national outlets denied prominent coverage of the 330,000 residents of West Virginia affected by a chemical spill and living without access to water. This oversight in conscientious timing helped to forge an incredibly powerful and virile debate surrounding photographic representation, with Kranitz’s provocative photographs serving as the unwitting representative.

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 Stacy Kranitz @ Marisha Camp

The notion that Appalachia (with it’s millions of diverse residents, varied histories and cultural movements) could serve as a tool in the palette of a young artist is upsetting.

When discussing As it was Give(n) to me, I find it necessary to acknowledge the level of consideration and research that has gone into the production of each image. The depth of Kranitz’s work offers a glimpse into the obsessive relationship between the artist and her process. She decisively shuns the fast-paced production model utilized by journalists for that of the long-form documentarians. With the inclusion of Xeroxed illustrations, newspaper clippings, pages from the books of historians and site locations as captions, she has created a sprawling narrative on the industry of mediated extraction. Furthermore, Kranitz’s artists’ statement reflects many years of engagement within the region. Each year, she spends several months living in the back of her car as she travels around Appalachia, endeavoring to live the moments she’s recording. In stating this, I am not attempting to craft an argument against critiques of her work. I’m simply trying to create a factual framework through which we can view the true complexity of this discourse. As it was give(n) to me is not a weekend essay—it’s a meticulous and analytical project that utilizes Appalachia as a means to explore classism, exploitation, sexism and regional exceptionalism.

The notion that Appalachia (with it’s millions of diverse residents, varied histories and cultural movements) could serve as a tool in the palette of a young artist is upsetting. Therefore, I find it appropriate to question Kranitz’s choice of this land as a metaphor and to acknowledge that the symbolic reproduction of any region is inherently reductive and exploitative. Although she has deliberately chosen to engage the problematic elements of this process, one must be aware that the informed dismissal of ethical practices does not alleviate the harmful repercussions that often accompany representation. This is a fact that has been substantiated in countless historical and contemporary examples of documentary work made within the region. Looking back to Life Magazine’s The Valley of Poverty, and the FSA’s relocation projects and documentary work throughout Kentucky, one can trace the origins of regional exceptionalism. This exceptionalism has enabled outsiders to justify the extraction of precious Appalachian resources, to the detriment of the land and its inhabitants. Furthermore, these projects have served in the marginalization of hundreds of thousands of individuals, as their regional identity has been reduced to a case for national charity.

Through interviews and her artists’ statement, Kranitz establishes a long-standing fascination with Leni Riefenstahl, one of the most prominent artists to create imagery for the Nazi party. She also discusses her interest in the photographic work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), whose coalition of photographers was hired to document widespread rural poverty during the great depression. The power of the images created by both of these parties molded and continue to inform the visual identities of their respective nations. Her interest in their methods of production reveals her desire to explore the political and moralistic instincts embedded within the profession. Kranitz playfully trivializes these instincts as she openly discusses her use of appropriation, as well as her physical and recreational relationships with her subjects. Similar to many of her male counterparts (such as Antoine D’Agata and Stanley Greene), Kranitz flaunts the spectacle of her love affairs. She breaks the bonds of their intimacy with her camera, builds public shrines to these former lovers in galleries and blends personal experiences seamlessly with moments of pure observation.

This, in my opinion, is the base of Kranitz’s work– the point where the history of photography and representation meet with contemporary notions of regional and economic identity. In Kranitz’s photographic Venn diagram, there is authorship, confirmation bias and performance, with subjective representation as the product of their intersection. By performance, I’m referring to the role an artist plays in the acquisition of an image, as well as the role the subject plays in contributing to its creation. Considering the present ubiquity of digital cameras and the many modes of visual representation individuals encounter each day, it is difficult to ignore the dual role of the photographic subject, as a semi-informed or practiced coauthor. It’s this complexity; found in these constructed personal narratives made in collaboration with her subjects, that gives her work a deeper form.

For viewers and critics to dismiss the openness of her process and the long-form nature of her engagement is one thing, but to deny the intellectual capacity of her subjects to engage critically in her work is another—far more dangerous—act. These are not hidden images; they are Facebook tags, profile pictures and personal memories for many of the people involved. They are passed around, celebrated, decried and hidden from parents. This is not to make the faulty assertion that her images have been widely supported by their participants, as I’m sure that many have regretted encountering her. It’s simply an attempt to acknowledge the capacity of the Appalachian subject to imagine and participate in his or her own representation. Kranitz’s work does not allow for us to passively view Appalachia. She makes the spectacle of engagement vibrant and celebrates the distortion and exaggeration of the camera as a tool. She also utilizes the complicity and direct gaze of the subject to illuminate personal spectatorship, pointing a finger at the viewer’s biases and desires.

When viewing Stacy Kranitz’s images, it’s easy to imagine how she would reproduce your likeness. She provokes dramatization and sexualizes subjects as varied as women, teenaged boys, food, acts of physical violence and addiction. Her utilization of an off-camera flash aids in the reimagining of iconographic black and white images of trailers, drug use and poverty as contemporaries of Vice’s vibrant and glorified images of privileged party life. Within this re-visualization, she conflates the conventionally beautiful with the historically grotesque—challenging our instincts to accept or damn certain behaviors based on widely supported ideas of fashion, success and health. Unlike many of the FSA’S images, Kranitz’s photographs make no differentiation between the violence and absurdity of the lives of rich, to those of the poor. Instead, she chooses to engage the camera for its power of ambiguity and nuance. While The Valley of Poverty was intended to incite American’s to open their wallets and hearts to the plights of the local unknown, Kranitz’s images ask for more. They ask for viewer engagement—whether through anger, confusion, lust, desire or disagreement—thereby making viewing a complex act.

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Much of Kranitz’s work brings to question the authenticity of stereotypes, including an old and often disregarded cliché of the documentary photographer.

To further explore Kranitz’s relationship with the art of representation, we must look deeper into the work and impact of her aforementioned influences. In doing so, it’s important to consider the state of rural poverty as well as the advancement of the Nazi party following the release of Riefenstahl and the FSA’s projects. Much of Kranitz’s work brings to question the authenticity of stereotypes, including an old and often disregarded cliché of the documentary photographer. Dorothea Lange created one of the FSA’s most enduring photographs, Migrant Mother—a portrait of migrant worker Florence Thompson—while she was on assignment in California. Roy Stryker, the head of the Information Division of the FSA, was said to have remarked that it was the “ultimate image of the depression era”, a statement which suggests that poverty, destitution and suffering have an aesthetic or a photographic form. Similarly, Edward Steichen declared the series of images as being “…the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.” Stryker’s insistence on creating imagery that showed the “human face” of the Great Depression was said to have influenced the execution of the final photograph; where the children were re-positioned and the mother was slightly posed. Furthermore, the final print was edited to remove compositional flaws, such as the subject’s thumb from a post in the foreground.

Lange made these questionable editorial choices as she created a document in the form of a photograph, which would be submitted to the papers for viewership by millions of Americans. This notion of a photograph as a credible source document is one that was later scrutinized by the subject, Florence Thompson, as she reflected on the inaccuracies and ethical missteps of the FSA. In Dorothea Lange’s telling of the incident, she claims:

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

After decades of hearing this quote on the alleged equality of their relationship, Thompson remarked:

“I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” In further disagreement with Lange’s statement, “…(she) seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me”, Thompson’s son stated that there were several inaccuracies in the caption. The Thompsons did not sell the tires off their car for food—in fact, they were in the process of having it fixed when Lange stumbled upon the scene. He notes that Florence mentioned a photographer stopping by, but that she seemed to think that it was insignificant and hardly worth discussing. The notion that there was an unspoken understanding between Thompson and Lange that the image would be of help to her family is one that was either truly believed by Lange or falsely asserted in the aftermath of the photograph’s impact. Either way, this historical dialogue has done a great deal to illuminate the established hierarchy of photographer and subject as that of savior and victim.

Much of Kranitz’s work is an investigation of these roles, and more specifically, the areas where they begin to merge and blur. Perhaps the most meaningful result of her exploration is the questions that are provoked. At what points in contemporary photography has the photographic subject become empowered by their engagement in the production of an image? Why was the language of poverty created and whom does it serve? Is this idea of poverty (as depicted in the photographic form) a verifiable reality, or is it simply an indicator of a non-normative culture? To further complicate her exploration of the role of documentary photographer, is Kranitz’s willingness to partake in many of the allegedly exotic and othering behaviors of her subjects. The documentation of the use of drugs and alcohol is a trend that she has not avoided in her exhaustive interrogation of Appalachian representation. Within this interrogation, you will find her refusal to withhold her presence in order to participate in the silent glorification of the author. Kranitz includes depictions of herself blacked out or engaging in illicit activities with photographs taken by her subjects when her camera is left unattended. The style is seamless, with the same vibrant colors and flash, sharp focus and attentive eye.

In Kranitz’s working title for the project, Regression to the Mean, she refers to a mathematical principle where the two greatest variables are averaged. In regards to representation, Kranitz acknowledges the tendency many image-makers have to either sympathetically under-exaggerate the state of a place or its people, or to grasp for pure spectacle. In Kranitz’s essay, she discusses the negotiation that takes place between her desire to create these spectacle-based fantasies and her ethical obligation to produce honest work. Thus, Kranitz’s mean is the subjective median between unabashed exploitation and fetishization, and what today’s critics would call ethical journalistic practices. Even in the moments of calm, Kranitz’s photographs are contextually dense, abrasive and declarative. Her use of the off-camera flash and a DSLR make these images contemporary, urgent and youthful with a remarkably similar aesthetic to Vice. Aside from Vice’s glamorous representations of urban party life, they’re also a magazine known for the glorification of “photo-slumming”—a style of work that is made to emphasize the novelty of the exotic. In this work, the journalists are often featured as the personified medium through which we can measure and experience otherness. They speak to the camera directly, give feedback and analysis of environments and situations and make jokes about their fear. In doing so, they are placing themselves as a standard of comparison against the film’s subjects, thereby becoming icons of normalcy for viewers.

Leni Riefenstahl, like Dorothea Lange, began making work during the depression-era of her country. Some of her earliest productions, created during the formative years of Nazism, were made with the intent to promote a sociopolitical ideal. By implementing the tropes of political propaganda, she created films that embodied fascism through their displays of fantastical and idealized nationalism. Unlike Lange (who attempted to use photography as a means to engage the present) Riefenstahl regarded her camera as a tool to visually articulate her ideal reality. Although both types of imagery have played essential roles in the othering and subsequent oppression of a class or race, it’s important to acknowledge a distinction between the two approaches. In Riefenstahl’s autobiography, A Memoir, she states:

“I set about seeking a thread, a theme, a style, in the realm of legend. Something that might allow me to give free rein to my juvenile sense of romanticism and the beautiful image.”

If Dorothea Lange’s assertion was that she and her subject were in collaboration to reflect and thereby alter the conditions of the now, then we must regard Riefenstahl’s desire for the beautiful image as an engagement in the art of fantasy and role-play. Despite the blatant elements of fiction in her work—including a strong sense of authorship through editing, innovative camera techniques and experimental perspectives—Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was considered a reliable document of the 1934 Nazi Party convention in Nuremberg. Two years later, Lange’s image of Florence Thompson as her embodiment of the Migrant Mother would make the headlines of papers, prompting federal intervention and civilian donations to a community of migrant pea-pickers in California.

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For a century, documentarians have shielded themselves behind false narratives, constructed identities and moralistic frameworks. They have buried their intentions beneath charities, non-profit organizations and the news, thereby creating intentionally narrow discourses about visual literacy, agency and subjectivity.

Herein lies the philosophical framework for Kranitz’s project: the tension between what is and the fictions that we develop and consume that represent what we desire to be. When author Harry Caudill was no longer able to comprehend the vast disparity between the poverty of the residents of Appalachia and the natural wealth of their region, he conceived of the stereotype of the Appalachian dullard. Within Caudill’s desired reality, Appalachian’s were no longer fit to manage their region, due to their mental insufficiency. Therefore, he conceived of a campaign to sterilize the diverse populations of Appalachians that had fought to maintain their land, despite rapid industrialization by extractive industries. It must be noted that Caudill’s intervention into Appalachia’s representational history was pervasive enough to gain the attention of Robert Kennedy, who would later initiate America’s War on Poverty after reading Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Once again, it becomes important to ask whom these images of poverty serve and if there’s a subjective truth behind poverty. Furthermore, we must question whether this notion of poverty culture is relied upon by corporate industry as a tool to divide our nation into regions of others.

While it is ethically fraught to use regions, individuals and cultures as props in a mediated discussion on representation, Kranitz’s work is still of great importance at this place in time. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she willingly challenges the notion of Appalachia as other. In deconstructing the role of the photographer, she takes an essential step towards uncovering the personal exceptionalism that lies hidden beneath a viewer’s interactions with an image. Although her work does not reach an accessible level of transparency, it does begin to scratch at the surface of the documentary tradition to reveal additional layers of complexity.

For a century, documentarians have shielded themselves behind false narratives, constructed identities and moralistic frameworks. They have buried their intentions beneath charities, non-profit organizations and the news, thereby creating intentionally narrow discourses about visual literacy, agency and subjectivity. In an attempt to engage Lorde’s famous quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” I’m presenting this notion of Kranitz’s work: As it was Give(n) to me is the subversive employment of journalistic tools to deconstruct the visual language of documentary photography. By documentary photography, I’m referring to the representational force that has demonstrated its power to influence political movements, frame national ideologies and assist in the oppression of countless. While Kranitz’s work may prompt new and challenging discourses, it’s ability to enact change may be limited by its dependence on representation. Therefore, I would like to present her work—and this essay—as a beginning to the broadening of our dialogue on representation, as well as an entry point for unpacking our reluctance to subvert the established ethics of social documentary photography.

As collaborators in this long-standing myth of Appalachia as other, we cannot continue to classify images of the hollow and mountain people as generally inaccurate. When we do, we deny their visual citizenship and opt for a standardized notion of right and wrong, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. While photography has not served the multitudes of diverse populations in the region, we must stop belittling the visual presence of the trailer, the pregnant woman, fried food and other such tropes. When we do, we perpetuate a legacy of shame that has been a fundamental tool in the weakening of our intersectional bonds, to the benefit of the industries that have exploited this land for over a century. Similarly, we must not enable photography to stand as a document of any culture. When we empower ourselves to look beyond the photograph, we can begin to see the wealth of cultures, histories and futures contained within the sprawling boundaries of Appalachia.

(All rights reserved. Text @ Kate Fowler. Images @ Stacy Kranitz and courtesy Little Big Man Gallery Los Angeles.)