John Vachon, “Grandmother of tenant farm family, Guilford County, North Carolina,” April 1938. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017716972/. Post-processed electronically for contrast and detail.
You see her through a frame decorated with a pattern of sprocket holes. A flash occurred, the custodian of the frame moved an advance lever with his thumb, and the image was moved on toward its place in the historical record. Left behind in the wooden room was what was to remain of the face after the light had blasted it into the record. Left behind was the shadow cast by the hand warding off the light. Those had vanished in a flash.
In the dining room in the background, the curtain is lace and there’s a decorative candle on the sideboard. The basic architecture of the living room is decorated likewise with consoling little flourishes of beauty. The brickwork of the fireplace is set off by the walls’ rusticated plaster, the overstuffed chair displays three crocheted antimacassars, and on the mantel with the portrait and the two little china things there’s also a clock that reads 3:55.
Perhaps the photograph was taken on a weekend, or perhaps the man who is tuning the radio is retired. At any rate, he is home at that hour, and wearing bedroom slippers. At that hour, a time scheme of slippers and daytime radio communicates leisure, and the man’s smile communicates satisfaction with the scheme for the present and optimism for its future.
But the Library’s record somberly adds that this home was in Royal Oak, Michigan, during the 1930s. History knows now what that means: this is a picture of a family suffering. Royal Oak in the 1930s was the home parish of Charles E. Coughlin, a Jew-baiting priest whose nationally popular radio broadcasts grew steadily more Fascist in their sympathies until they were silenced by the Bishop of Detroit after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in this photomemoir of the Royal Oak moment the nice grandmother in her comfortable chair is holding a copy of Father Coughlin’s newspaper Social Justice. Its headline is to be read only as a scream of distress.
It cries, WORLD REVOLUTION ORDERED BY STALIN! Furthermore, its sans-serif font on folded newsprint assures the old woman, as she lets its fall into her lap from an unsteady hand, that it speaks the truth. Especially, too, when it’s read in a house full of things, it reminds the old woman that she has much to lose if what it says is true — and it adds that what it says is true because it’s on newsprint, in sans-serif. Because she has bound up her life with sans-serif in a roomful of things, she must now remain in the room forever after, with all her unhappy valuables of polished wooden radio and sans-serif on newsprint. She can’t afford to leave. Having turned on the room’s radio and subscribed to the room’s newspaper, she has been deprived of the power to imagine being happy. In this room, ever after, there will be no more fiction.
The man has been reduced. When he lay down on a cot to read, everything was taken from him except a suit of underwear, for decency’s grudging sake, and the glasses that someone once bought for him, taught him to read through, and then forgot to take back.
But I’d guess that the fragment of title readable on the cover of the man’s magazine is “The Western,” and its Old West typeface tells a story different from the sans-serif of Royal Oak. This story says: in Sioux City, Iowa, in an institution called the homeless men’s bureau, imagination lives and brings not happiness, surely, but at least oblivion. Held close to the underwear like an amulet, words spelled out in an Old West font fill their reader with the power to forget.
The other photograph, by Russell Lee, is one of a group taken for the United States Resettlement Administration in December 1936. Its Library of Congress title is “Man lying on bed reading magazine, homeless men’s bureau, Sioux City, Iowa.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997021496/PP/. Photoshopped.