Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Federal Relief Document ?

Perhaps the most troubling document I found is this 'official' sterilization document.  The document lists a number of witnesses, including family members, who agree to the sterilization of a young Corbin woman.  In regards to the parents, its hard to know if they understood what they were signing. The document indicates that they were illiterate, thus unable to read it.  The statement of the young woman's husband is also questionable.  Such a statement could have easily been coerced as his agreement to have his wife sterilized comes just before being sent to the penitentiary.  The school teacher's signature is harder to explain.  Ruby Ruebush likely was the teacher of this young Corbin woman at the one room Corbin School she attended.  The school was close to her house and Ruby almost certainly knew her.  Indeed the document gives her a status close to that of her own family.  As a school teacher she would be an authority on the young woman's 'mental fitness.'

Also troubling is the statement that the sterilization will be performed under the direction of the 'Senior Worker in Federal Relief Work,' Florence Strickler.  Strickler, the author of a 1935 Federal Relief Report titled 'Madison Park Families,' would go on to head the Madison County Department of Social Services. She signed off on every commitment document that I found in the Madison Courthouse.  Could this document indicate a Federal role in this young woman's sterilization?  Generally this was done by the state with upwards of 30 states having eugenic laws on their books at the time.      

In Warren's Washington Post article which features Rothstein's photographs,  the mother of this Corbin woman is depicted opposite a photograph of Ruby's sister, also a school teacher at the Corbin School.  The article was published two days after the young woman and her brother were committed  to the 'Colony.'  With the title 'Blue Ridge Hillbillies Get a Transfer -- From 19th to 20th Century.'  it fails to mention that she and her brother were 'transferred' to Virginia's infamous center for eugenics.

I blacked out family members' names to protect their privacy.          


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Since making the film, Rothstein's First Assignment, at least three of my interviewees have died.  When Mary Frances died her caretaker, Tracy Parker, invited me to her memorial service.  The service was in the same apartment building where I had interviewed Mary some five years earlier.  At the service I was able to meet many of Mary's friends including two women who knew her from "The Colony." The experience helped me realize the importance of Mary Frances' story.  After the service Tracy and I agreed that Mary Frances should have a published obituary so that her story wouldn't be forgotten.  Below is what we put together and had published in the Madison Eagle, the newspaper of Madison County where Mary was born.

In Memoriam

Mary Frances Memorial Service

Mary Frances Corbin Donald

Mary Frances Corbin Donald passed away on April 14, 2015 at her home in Lynchburg, Virginia surrounded by her friend and caregiver Ann Youngblood. She was born in Madison County, Virginia on May 17, 1935 in what is now Shenandoah National Park. 

As the daughter of Harrison Corbin and Grand-daughter of Fennel Corbin, Mary Frances and her family were at the center of the now discredited ethnographic study Hollow Folk.  This study, and the government programs that utilized it, would set the course of much of her life. From the forced eviction from her mountain home, where Hollow Folk ‘found’ that the ‘problems’ of the Corbin’s’ were due to their isolation from society -providing justification for the condemnation of their land to make way for Shenandoah National Park.  To the forced institutionalization and sterilization of many of her family members -where it was ‘determined’ that many Corbin children were ‘unfit’ to have children. Hollow Folk and the government programs that used it had a devastating impact on her family. Mary herself was forced to undergo sterilization at the age of 11 at “The Colony” where her mother and siblings had been committed after her father’s death from pellagra.

In spite of this, Mary played an important role in bringing Virginia’s eugenics program to an end.  Of the thousands of survivors, only Mary and a handful of her friends from “The Colony” found the strength to confront this legacy. Traveling to Richmond to protest eugenics to the governor, they were able to end the government program that had so impacted their lives. At the time of her death Mary was one of ten survivors set to receive compensation from the state of Virginia.

Mary was featured in the 1993 documentary film The Lynchburg Story, the 1995 Roanoke Times article, “An Elite Said Their Kind Wasn’t Wanted, How Social Judgments of the day Forced Sterilizations, “ and the 2011 documentary Rothstein's First Assignment. Her family was at the center of FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein’s first assignment, which is archived at the Library of Congress.    

Mary was laid to rest on April 17, 2015 at Tree of Life Cemetery in Altavista, Virginia. A memorial and remembrance service was conducted on May 17, 2015 on what would have been Mary's 80th birthday. All that attended remembered Mary as being a sweet and caring woman.  Mary was a tenacious woman who was loved by all that knew her.  Rest well sweet angel.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Deutsch Response in The Journal of American History

There were many reviews of my film Rothstein's First Assignment.  The reviews were generally mixed with most criticism focused on the films unusual structure. There was however one direct attack against the film from James Deutsch in the Journal of American History.   

At first I thought Deutsch needed no response due to his clear bias and misrepresentation of facts.  Anyone who has seen the film would quickly see through it.  Indeed one scholar was baffled that Deutsch's  review was published by the Journal citing its lack of scholarly merit.  Then I considered the views of those who haven't seen the film. For this reason I opted to respond.  I include my rebuttal of Deutsch's review here:


Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Sterilization Document

After I finished Rothstein's First Assignment I continued to find new information and documentation.  The most disturbing document that I found was written by a Charlottesville doctor.  In what appears to be a supporting document for a young woman’s commitment to The Colony, the doctor writes to the local Madison physician who attended Rothstein’s subjects.   

“We saw ---- in the clinic and found her to be well down to the imbecile level.  Certainly, there is every reason in the world why this woman should be sterilized.  We found no physical defect except some impetigo.  However, as both the husband and wife are both minors and wife obviously feebleminded we cannot get the gynecology department to sterilize her.  According to State laws, she would have to be committed to the Colony at Lynchburg.  We will be glad to do this if you do not wish to carry it out yourself.  I think it is too bad that this girl cannot be sterilized without all this trouble, but, apparently, it cannot be done.

Thank you for sending her down.  We will be glad to help in any way that we can.”

The date of the document is July 18, 1935. The young woman’s commitment to The Colony does not occur until Nov 1, 1935.  In court records she and her brother are both committed a little over three months later.

This girl’s mother is the woman featured in the Washington Post article by Virginia Lee Warren. She appears beside an image of the Corbin Hollow school teacher in photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein. Warren makes no comment about the girl or her brother’s commitment to the Colony.  Though documents indicate relatives and officials- including the school teacher, were aware that she was to be sterilized, Warren’s article makes no mention of it.  Warren’s article was published two days after the children’s commitment and months after the decision to have the girl  sterilized.  Rothstein's archive includes pictures of the girl and her brother as well as their siblings.  He photographed the family and their home extensively. 

I still don't fully understand this document but I continue to be troubled by it.  It adds a disturbing emphasis to the conclusion of my film.  I talked to the now deceased woman's niece and she confirmed that her aunt had never had any children.  She too was stunned by the document as she never knew this part of her aunt's history.      

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More Historic Screenings

Last week there were two more historic screenings of Rothstein's First Assignment.  On Wednesday, November 9th there was a screening at Sweet Briar College in Amherst, Virginia, while the previous Saturday,  Rothstein's First Assignment was screened at Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville as part of the Virginia Film Festival. 

The Sweet Briar screening on Wednesday evening was important for two reasons.  First, Sweet Briar played its own role in eugenics.  One of the authors of the famous eugenic book, Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe (1926), had been a Sweet Briar Professor just before its publication.   The Win Tribe focused on a poor interracial community in Amherst County so called 'WIN'  due its 'White, Indian and Negro' heritage.   Its authors falsely connected the community's poverty to this interracial makeup.  Funded by the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC, The WIN Tribe's lead author was Arthur Estabrook.  Below is a link to an image from Estabrook's photograph's of The 'WIN Tribe. '  Estabrook kept a scrapbook of photographs as part of his 'documentation.'  His photographs reflect the role of photography in eugenic studies. 
"Callie Black" from Estabrook's Scrapbook

The second reason the screening was important was that it was attended by Mary Francis.  To a large degree Mary Francis is Rothstein's First Assignment's central character.  Though her appearance comes at the end of the film, it is her family that was a the center of Rothstein's First Assignment.  Virtually all of her aunts and uncles had children that were sent to the Colony. For reasons that are still not clear, Rothstein gave more attention to her family than any other.

At the age of 7 she was sent to the Colony in Amherst County where she was forcibly sterilized.  As Mary Bishop reported,  the operation almost killed her. Mary wasn't released from the Colony until the late fifties.  She believes her marriage dissolved because she couldn't bear children.

Having Mary Francis at the Sweet Briar screening of Rothstein's First Assignment was also important for Mary Francis.  Mary Bishop, who has reported extensively on eugenics in Virginia and first reported Mary Francis's story,  explained to me that most former residents of the Colony slip into obscurity.  The shame that comes with being labeled "feebleminded"  creates its own exile.   Few are willing to talk about their experiences.  Of the thousands of individuals who were sterilized in Virginia, only a handful have been willing to go on the record. 

When Mary Bishop heard that Mary Francis was going to come, she decided to also attend.  She wanted to witness the event.  It was an emotional experience for everyone.  Mary Francis's caretaker was so moved that she cried. 
Mary Bishop with Mary Francis (seated) at Sweet Briar

The second historic screening occurred as part of the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville.  On Nov 5 at Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville, Rothstein's First Assignment opened to a packed house.  The screening had sold out the day before and by some counts there were over 60 people without tickets who wanted to get in. Even those of us on the panel had difficulty getting tickets for our spouses.

Part of the reason it was so popular was that RFA had received a large amount of press leading up to the event.  The local paper, The Daily Progress led with RFA in its coverage of The Virginia Film Festival ('Rothstein's First Assignment' examines documentary truth).  Sandy Hausman of NPR covered it (A Dark Part of Virginia's Past Comes to the Big Screen) while even the local TV station, Channel 29 picked it up (Experimental Documentary Tells a Different Story).

The other part of its popularity likely had much to do with the fact that Rothstein's First Assignment is largely a local story.  Many elements of the story connect with Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.  The social worker, Miriam Sizer who apparently worked with Rothstein (she was photographed by him) received her Masters from UVA.  While Shenandoah National Park is popular with Charlottesville residents. 

There was also the local support of Madison and Orange Counties.  In what has been a bit of a surprise,  there has been more support than I anticipated from descendants of mountain residents who were displaced when they created the Park.  I had feared that with the unorthodox approach I took in making the film (it was originally intended to be an experimental film), I would lose this local audience.  In my efforts to have RFA structurally explore the idea of documentary truth while it conventionally questions the 'truth' of Rothstein's assignment, I feared I might alienate local residents.

To my surprise it turns out that they have given Rothstein's First Assignment a large amount of its support.  Indeed at a screening in Madison one descendant came to my defense during a Q and A asserting the truth of the sterilizations,  while a viewer at a screening in Orange asked how she could have her daughter see it.  Local screenings have often brought to light stories unknown to me.  

As case in point, though Rothstein's First Assignment  has been screened locally three times, there were still surprises at the Virginia Film Festival.  For one I was able to fill in a missing link in one of Rothstein's photographs.  A woman came up to me after the screening and identified her mother in one of Rothsteins's images.  Most of the children are not identified in Rothstein's captions making it difficult to track them down.  While during the Q and A after the screening, a man made a claim that individuals from UVA were not only connected to eugenics, but also to the famous Tuskegee experiment.  A claim I had not heard before.*
* It has been brought to my attention that Paul Lombardo explains the link to Tuskegee in an article with Gregory Dorr titled, Eugenics, Medical Education, and the Public Health Service: Another Perspective on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. 


Thursday, June 2, 2011

An Historic Screening of Rothstein's First Assignment

An early screening of Rothstein's First Assignment was held at Woodberry Forest School.  My intention for the screening was that it be for the residents of Madison County and the community of Woodberry Forest.  I wanted to update the faculty on my latest project, giving them the chance to view it before it went out to the festivals.   But mostly, I wanted the residents of Madison County to see the film since it was largely their story.

Most of those who appear in the film are from Madison County.   The majority are descendants of Rothstein's subjects.  Without their help I  couldn't have made the film.  To thank them I had made a point to invite them to the screening so that they might see the film.  As Woodberry Forest is in Madison County, it was the perfect venue for them to see the film.

On the night the film was to screen, there were problems in getting things set up.  For some reason we were unable to get the sound to work.   After working on this for over an hour we ran out of time and were forced to run things through my laptop.  This created its own problem as I hadn't brought my charger.  After getting the film started I had to rush home to get the charger for fear that the battery would die in the middle of the screening.  Because of this we were unable to do a proper sound check. 
As a result,  I was not ready for my first questioner.  I had barely finished apologizing for our sound problems when I was confronted by a very angry spectator.  From the beginning he challenged me on a number of aspects about the film.  No matter my answer, he was  never satisfied.  For what seemed like a long time, his challenges kept coming.  

Eventually the audience grew impatient and requested that we move on.  Most of them readily accepted my findings and wanted to know more.  They knew the story better than I did as it was their story.  It was a story they had been waiting a very long time to hear.

One man in particular asked me if I knew about the graveyard up at the institution in Staunton.  At what is known as Western State or the DeJarnette Center in Staunton, Virginia, there are unmarked graves.  Though the film barely touches on this facility at Staunton, I knew that at least one of Rothstein's subjects had been sent there. Visiting it myself and photographing the graves, I  was disturbed by it.  Though the facility is closed, the stories still circulate about what went on there.  Many locals feel it is haunted.  My questioner himself had a sense of urgency.  I sensed that there was much more I should know about the activities at Staunton that might connect to my film.

Yet before I was able to explore this, my first questioner reasserted himself and began to challenge me again.  He told me that I didn't have proof.  That I was making statements that I couldn't support.  Things started all over again. 

At about that time a woman from the audience spoke out and came to my defense.  Sitting at the back of the theater, in no uncertain terms she confirmed what I had uncovered.  She said straight out that it did happen.  That yes, children were sterilized.  

What I didn't know at the time was that the man who was challenging me was sitting with Rothstein's daughter, Annie Segan.  He was Annie's friend and they had both driven down from NYC to see the film.  I didnt know this because they hadn't told me.  I'm not even sure how they found out about the screening.  Not even my friends in neighboring Charlottesville knew about the screening.   

What I also didn't know was that the woman who came to my defense was the wife of the great-grandson of the man at the center of Rothstein's project.  She knew the true story of what happened to Rothstein's subjects because she had married into the family.  Though Rothstein had written on his caption that this man's great grandfather was to get a new home from the government,  the story I uncovered was that he had been institutionalized at this Staunton facility.  I even found a document stating that he was buried in one of those unmarked graves.

It took awhile for the importance of the screening to sink in.  As a photographer myself, I had sought to attend to Annie.  I knew very well the importance of her father to my profession and I felt somehow responsible for her well being.  I had not wanted her to see the film.  Had she asked me, I would have told her not to come. 

Yet I couldn't deny what I had found while making the film.  There were too many levels of confirmation.  I was skeptical in the beginning.  I even tried to disprove it.   What I found challenged my own understandings of a profession I have both taught and practiced.  But I would only be fooling myself if I denied it.   I couldn't look away,  not with all the evidence I had unearthed.

When the events of that screening finally sorted themselves out, I  realized the historical nature of the event.  For probably the first time since 1935, I had brought together those impacted by the events defining Rothstein's assignment.

That Annie's friend Brodie had challenged my film so strongly, while the wife of a descendant of the man at the center of Rothstein's project had come strongly to its defense spoke volumes.  When I later recognized this descendant he said to me "I told you you were going to stir up a hornets' nest." 

To see footage of this event click here for my student, Peter Chen's, documentation of it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Nethers Post Office

a still from the film, Rothstein's First Assignment
Rothstein's cover image for his book
Originally I had thought Rothstein's First Assignment might be a re-photographic project. Something along the lines of Mark Klett and William Christenberry's work. I was intrigued by the idea that almost all of Rothstein's sites were now part of a National Park. Instead of the usual routine of documenting the encroachment of development, I thought it might be interesting to document the transformation of previously inhabited land back to 'pristine wilderness.' The whole idea of returning land back to nature seemed problematic. I felt it to be based on what is called, "The Pristine Myth." The false conception we have regarding the origins of much of America. A belief that largely denies the existence of Native Americans.

I started with the Nethers Post Office. The cover image for Rothstein's own book on the depression (see above). I had originally hoped that the building would still be there, but it wasn't. While looking for where it had been, I saw Mr Dodson out in his yard next door. I asked him if the empty lot next to his house was where the Nethers PO had been. He confirmed that it was and told me that his grandfather was in the cover Post Office image. In fact he told me, his brother has the old PO sign. That was how I secured my first interview for the project. The turning point for Rothstein's First Assignment becoming a film.

another Rothstein image of Nethers Post Office
There were a couple of things about Rothstein's photograph that seemed odd to me, even then. If you look closely at the boy in the back picture he's blurred from moving too much. This indicates a slow shutter speed. Everything else is sharp. Also in the top right you can see Rothstein's hand blocking the light from producing flare on the lens. Because of the buildings orientation, he's shooting almost into the sun. These details show that Rothstein didn't shoot this image with a Leica as he talks about in the Richard Doud interview, but with a large format camera on a tripod. The image is clearly staged as even John Dodson would later attest.

Rothstein took a number of photographs of the Post Office. Other images have different people. In some there's a man reading a paper. Some are even taken with a 35mm camera, but the most important were produced with this large format camera.

Rothstein 35mm image of Nethers Post Office
The Nether's Post Office was clearly important to his assignment. In trying to understand this I looked it up at the Prints and Photographs division at the Library of Congress. There the Nether's PO image is simply filed with all the other Post Office photos. The imporatance being that it is a Post Office. But that doesn't begin to tell the whole story of why Rothstein spent so much time there. It wasn't until I found an archival film which also documented the Post Office that I would begin to understand the true reason that Rothstien spent so much time at the Nethers Post Office. The film largely anticipates Rothstein's assignment. Produced before his arrival, it documents many of the same people Rothstein would later photograph. It also tells a story that Rothstein is silent on.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Constructing Documentary Truth

The questions I set out to explore with this film revolved around our ideas about documentary truth. Simply put, I was concerned about how documentaries are produced to depict truth. Do documentaries reveal truth or do they construct it?
This question had become especially problematic when I started making films. For me it seemed the only true documentary would be one made with a continuous take. Like the early films of Edison and Lumiere where they just turned on the camera and let it run. To me this was truth. But that was before montage, that was before films came to be constructed. It was before Edison realized he could make money from films.

And that for me was where a documentary's claim to truth breaks down. When you put two different splices of film together who's to know that they have any relationship to each other that constitutes truth? How do you know if the first splice happened before or after the second splice? The whole continuity of a film is an illusion. It only exists in the viewer's mind.
Edison's Film, The Sneeze
Not that the still photographer isn't is without their own problems. For me the most problematic documentary aspect of still photography is that of framing. How does a photographer decide what to put in the frame and what to leave out? How do they decide who to photograph and who not to photograph? What detail is important and which one is not?

To think a documentary photographer just documents the situation is not how it works. Documentary photographers are sent to document a story that has usually been written before they arrive on the scene. If the story doesn't fit what they find (which is often the case), they have ways of making it work. They are not there to contradict the story they have been sent to get. Otherwise they'd soon be out of business. Like their film counterparts, documentary photographers construct their photo essays.

So at the beginning of this project, I was interested in how Rothstein constructed his story from the reality that was presented to him. I knew going into this that Rothstein's story did not fit how the locals saw themselves. Rothstein's story of poverty and illiteracy was a cherry picked truth. It didn't tell the whole story of the mountain people. It wasn't their story, it was an outsider's story. As I was told at the Madison Historical Society, 'Rothstein took his photographs to make everyone look poor.'

Not that anyone doubted there were poor people in the mountains. There were. Madison County already had in place a local welfare system of sorts to deal with the problem. The poor just weren't the majority of the population. As Jimmy Brown put it, it was like going to New York City and photographing Harlem in the midst of its poverty, and then using those photographs to define all the inhabitants of Manhattan. It wasn't the truth.

So I set up a series of formal devices to explore Rothstein's assignment to look at documentary structural issues, devices that came to comprise the basic structure of the film, and I decided not to construct my truth but to find it. I wanted to see what my subjects would give me and see how it fit with the traditional narrative. My only boundaries were to stay within Rothstein's assignment. All I would bring to my interviews would be Rothstein's photographs. I wanted my subjects to reveal their truth as it related to Rothstein's photographs.
On the left is Blanche with an unidentified child. Rothstein identifies her as Mrs Nicholson. On the right is Sam Corbin. Sam and Blanche are sister and brother and they are posing in front of the same house, probably at the same time (with one of the same children ). The camera is a large format camera, not a leica as is evidenced by the frame and the light leaks.

What I didn't expect to find was a story behind the story of Rothstein's first assignment. That Rothstein's story was not only a misrepresentation of the area in which he was photographing, but that it also was probably not the story he was sent to document. About half way through the film I started to find that there was another secret, incredibly sinister story behind the official narrative. A story that I had never heard, nor read about. A story most of the mountain people had never heard about either.

To understand that story I had to study the book Hollow Folk. Hollow Folk is a book that at the time was considered to be an important scientific study. Published in 1933 if focuses largely on the same people Rothstein would later photograph. Though now discredited, it provides an important window into the narrative that must have guided Rothstein.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Apple Vendor and the Cliser Eviction

Apple Vendor Arthur  Rothstein Oct 1935
Cliser eviction Oct 1935

One the left, the Cliser Eviction photographed Oct 1935 by the Park. On the right an Apple Vendor photographed in October of 1935 by Arthur Rothstein. Both photographs were taken on Lee Highway near what would become the entrance to the Park.

When I began Rothstein's First Assignment (RFA), I looked for writings that Rothstein had left on this first assignment of his career. Rothstein was known for leaving type written notes on many of his assignments. Erol Morris's blog has an example of Rothstein's notes on his famous Dust Storm image.

I went to the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division to see if there were any notes on Rothstein's assignment in Shenandoah National Park in October of 1935. I found the dust storm notes, but Rothstein left no notes until about six months after his premiere assignment. I asked Beverly Brannon, curator at the Prints and Photographs, why no notes. She explained that in the beginning things were too chaotic and since the assignment was so close to Washington, there weren't any notes. I checked with the Roy Stryker archives in Louisville, KY and the archivist there also said that Roy Stryker, Rothstein's boss, also hadn't left any notes on this assignment. I even went to a collection of Rothstein's materials downstairs from the Prints and Photographs Department. Nothing there either. About the only thing I could find was the Richard Doud interview recorded in NYC in the 60s, which wasn't much help either.

So I went to the historical record to try to get a sense of the situation. I wanted to know what things were like when Rothstein went up into the mountains. The thing that I found that struck me was the Cliser eviction. On Oct 3, 1935 there was a well publicized eviction near the entrance to the Park. Melachnton Cliser, who owned a gas station, was resisting being moved from the park. More than that he was protesting it. He was talking to the press and writing his congressmen. The locals were behind him and he was starting to get a lot of press.

Since Rothstein's assignment also occured in October of 1935, I thought he might of taken a picture of the eviction. Some type of record even if he arrived too late to capture the actual eviction. Since he was working for what was known as the Resettlement Administration, it seemed the Cliser eviction would be something that he would photograph. But he didnt.

Oddly I found that he did photograph an apple vendor on the same road nearby. This meant he had to have passed by the Cliser site. Why photograph an apple vendor, which had nothing to do with Resettlement, but then not photograph a man whom the government was evicting from his land? To me this seemed more important to the government agency he was working for. After all the Park photographed the Cliser eviction. For some reason it wasn't part of the story Rothstein was sent to document.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Cecil Brown, the Roman Coliseum and Fennel

Cecil Brown with Coliseum photograph in background
Cecil's interview was another instance of one thing leading to another. When I had interviewed his relative, Jimmy Brown, Jimmy told me that Cecil had the photograph of the Roman Coliseum in Rothstein's portrait of his grandfather, Postmaster Brown. That was my original intention for interviewing Cecil. Since with John Dodson, I had located the sign for the Nethers Post Office, I thought that adding the photograph of the Coliseum to the mix would give a re-photographic texture to my film.

Postmaster Brown   A Rothstein
It also seemed odd to me that someone who was described as poor would have such a large and wonderful photograph of the Coliseum in 1935. To my mind this indicated education and something beyond poverty. It contradicted the narrative I was familiar with, that all the mountain residents were poor and uneducated. Not to mention Postmaster Brown is posing with a book in Rothstein's photograph.

Mrs Dyer with child  A Rothstein
What I didn't know was that Cecil had guided Rothstein up into the mountians to take his photographs of Mrs Dyer and her children. This came up when I was showing Cecil, Rothstein's book of photographs. When we came to the page with the caption reading 'Mrs Dodson,' he corrected the book and preceded to tell us his story of taking Rothstein to the Dyer home. He didn't remember much about Rothstein. All he could remember was the car that he drove. He agreed to take Rothstein up into the mountains just to get a ride in the car.
That change in identification would later prove important when I went to look up the records, though I didnt understand it at the time. It would also explain Rothstein's curious edit of the this family's images. When looked at as a whole, Rothstein's images of this family tell us a very different story.

Another story came up when we got to Rothstein's picture of Fennel Corbin. The first thing Cecil said about Fennel is that he had shot a man. Its a bit of local lore that Fennel shot and killed a Dodson boy. Everyone seems to have their own version of this story, even Pollock, the owner of Skyland. Cecil's version seems to combine two stories of shootings in Corbin Hollow as Fennel couldn't have been old enough to serve in the Civil war. Yet Cecil's version tells much about Fennel's reputation in the community. Fennel's family seems to have been the poorest in the neighborhood and his neighbors had various responses to that poverty.

Fennel as photographed by Rothstein
Fennel from A Trip to Skyland

What was intriguing to me was how much media attention Fennel's family got for their poverty. They were featured in the film, Trip to Skyland and Shenandoah National Park. They were at the center of the book, Hollow Folk. The Park photographed them both before and after Rothstein's visit and there are even audio recordings of the family made in 1937. Not to mention the newspaper articles in The Washington Post and the New York Times. That Rothstein spent most of his time photographing just this extended family clearly wasn't accidental. It was more likely preordained. The key to this media attention of course was Miriam Sizer.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who Was With Rothstein on His Assignment?

Arthur Rothstein
In doing my research before setting out, I came across Paula Rabinowitz's "Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." The article raised a number of questions for me. Most notably, what was Rothstein's relationship to his subjects? We often think that Rothstein just stumbled across his subjects. That like a city street photographer he came across his subjects in his random walks in the mountains. Rothstein largely makes that claim in the Richard Doud interview.

"I went out there and was in a cabin on the top of a mountain for a few weeks, walked around and became acquainted with these people. At the beginning they were very shy about having pictures taken, but I would carry my camera along and make no attempt to take pictures. "

Oral history interview with Arthur Rothstein, 1964 May 25, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

But I sensed that that wasn't the case. As a photographer myself, I felt that someone must have arranged for him to photograph the people that he did.  It made no sense that he could've have found his subjects on his own.   He was twenty years old and by his own admission had rarely been outside of New York City.

Rothstein's assignment reminded me of an assignment I had done in Nepal on AIDS/HIV. In this situation, even though I had gone to school in Nepal and was familiar with it, I was dependent on an NGO (non government organization) to lead me to my subjects. Though I  didn't usually photograph them, a social worker was always present while I worked. I was dependent on my subjects relationship to this NGO to get my photographs for the story.  

So I was curious, who was with Rothstein on his assignment? What was their relationship to his subjects? Did it reflect the same sense of class consciousness that Rabinowitz writes about? At first I thought Rabinowitz overstated things. After all, the FSA narrative suggests Rothstein was there to help the poor. Indeed the Washington Post article that was published with Rothstein's photographs is titled,  Government Moves Mountain Residents from 19th century to 20th century.  

But then I realized the proximity of Rothstein's subjects to the elite resort, Skyland, and I began to question my assumptions. There clearly was a relationship between the poor residents of Corbin Hollow and their rich politically powerful neighbors nearby. A relationship that had been developing for over thirty years before Rothstein showed up. Many Corbin Hollow residents worked at Skyland and there were also Corbin Hollow residents who begged at the resort.

In my interviews I heard many stories about the financial relationship of Corbin Hollow residents and the resort Skyland.  Some residents cleared trails and supplied firewood for the resort. Other residents even sold  George Pollock rattlesnakes for his famous snake dance.  And there were the begging boards that poor residents used to ask for money.   Everyone it seemed had a financial relationship to Pollock and his resort.

Eddie Nicholson home 1933 or 1934
Eddie Nicholson 1935 (Rothstein)
There also was a curious photograph in Audrey Horning's book, In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain. In the chapter on Corbin Hollow there is a picture that shows a group of 'outsiders' visiting Corbin Hollow. This picture was significant to me because it showed what is normally cropped out of a picture, the photographer and the 'others' who are with him. Instead of the normal framing, it showed a group of men with a
photographer, probably Dr Sexton, visiting Eddie Nicholson's house and filming his wife, Blanche. You can see Sexton leaning over in the foreground looking into his viewfinder.

When I finally tracked this image down at the Park's Archives in Luray, the caption on the back said they were visiting the 'Hollow Folk,' a direct reference to the book Hollow Folk. It spoke volumes to me about the relationship between Corbin Hollow residents and their benefactors. It was starting to look like Rabinowitz was right. When I realized that Rothstein had gone up to that same house less than three years later and photographed Eddie Nicholson sitting on the back porch I wondered,  could he have been accompanied by a similar entourage?

I found my answer in a Washington Post Article published on November 3, 1935. In a feature article, Rothstein’s photographs are used in what is presumably his first published piece.  Titled, Blue Ridge Hillbillies Get a Transfer-From 19th to 20th Century, the article by Virginia Warren highlights the upcoming Resettlement of mountain residents to make way for the Park. 

Warren’s article provides a clear idea of how Rothstein worked. She tells us that she was accompanied by, ‘a Rural Resettlement Official, a photographer and a reporter for a great British newspaper.’[1] With the added information that they had a guide, the local school teacher, Warren presents us with scenario similar to what we see in the Sexton photograph.
Like Hollow Folk, Warren’s article focuses on the same extended Corbin Hollow family.  At times paraphrasing the book, Warren’s article is clearly influenced by it.  She even repeats the odd assertion that the happiness of Corbin Hollow residents is a sign of their backwardness.   Though she changes the names from the book, names that have already been changed by Hollow Folk’s authors, it is clear that she is talking about the same people.  ‘Mazie,’ a central figure in Hollow Folk becomes ‘Mattie’ and is likewise central in Warren’s article.  She is also central to Rothstein’s archive on this project.  

Yet in her description of Rothstein’s working situation, Warren seems to contradict Rothstein.    From Rothstein’s description we are led to believe that his selection criteria was random and that he was alone.  But with Warren’s article it’s clear that the Corbins essentially all lived next door to one another in upper Corbin Hollow.  In her article Warren describes going door to door in what appears to be an organized tour, 
 “The party halted at every cabin in the vicinity…[1] 

Further contradicting Rothstein’s account, this ‘party’ has been set up to promote the Resettlement Project and had gone so far as to invite a foreign reporter.  In sharp contrast to Rothstein’s description, his subjects were part of a display that had been selected for him to photograph.

Indeed it would have been difficult for Rothstein to get to know the Corbins. There were a limited number of outsiders who could venture into Corbin Hollow.  Outsiders needed an introduction to the community, they reportedly could not wander in freely. Additionally Rothstein would have had difficulty communicating with his subjects.  They were well known to have an Old English dialect.  Only one outsider, Miriam Sizer, is reported to have learned this dialect.[2] That Rothstein could have just wandered around and gotten to know this extended Corbin Hollow family contradicts Warren’s article and all other accounts I could find. 
But even Warren’s article is wrong on its most basic point. The residents of Corbin Hollow did not participate in the Resettlement Project. Despite all comments to the contrary, the Corbin’s were not moved to any of the Resettlement camps.  Though the government still characterizes Rothstein’s project as,

 ‘to document the lives of some Virginia farmers who were being evicted to make way for the Shenandoah National Park and about to be relocated by the Resettlement Administration,’ [3]

this was not what happened.   

The Corbin’s were not even farmers.  Though Rothstein does photograph a number of farms in the region, they have no known connection to the Corbin Families at the center of his project.  That he photographs these farms and not the farmers who worked them is curious.[4] Given the characterization of Rothstein’s project by the government, it seems Rothstein’s photographs of these farms are meant to imply falsely that these were Rothstein’s subjects farms.        

[1] Ibid.
[2] A recording I found of one of Rothstein’s subjects, ‘Mazie,’ made in 1937, makes clear that Rothstein could not have understood her.  This recording was made by UVA Professors Atcheson Hench and Archibald Hill and has Miriam Sizer doing the interview. 
[3] Documenting America.  Tenant Farmers. Library of Congress. Accessed May 26, 2013.
[4] Further complicating this issue is the Via Case where a group of Apple Orchard owners were contesting the condemnation of their land to build the Park.  At the time of Rothstein’s project this case was before the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ultimately chose not to review their case.   

[1] Warren, Virginia Lee.  Blue Ridge Hillbillies Get a Transfer -- From 19th to 20th Century
The Washington Post. Nov 3, 1935
[2] For reasons that are not entirely clear, the authors of Hollow Folk changed the names of both the locations and their residents.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hollow Folk and the Objective Observer

One of the most troubling aspects I confronted in making Rothstein's First Assignment was the myth of the objective observer.  In both Rothstein's depictions of his subjects and  Hollow Folk's findings about the same subjects, the presence of those 'documenting' residents of Corbin Hollow is cloaked in a shroud of invisibility.  The assumption of those doing the  documentation is that their presence does not impact the events they are studying.  The writers of Hollow Folk are detached scientists,  Rothstein is using an 'unobtrusive camera. '  We are given a story and a set of photographs in which the creators are absent. 

The actual theory behind Hollow Folk was especially troubling in its misuse of the idea of objectivity.   In the five Hollows that are 'studied' by its authors, it is reasoned that Corbin Hollow is the most backward (poor) because of its isolation from society.   That Corbin Hollow's current state of affairs can be explained by its isolation from society. 

Yet the idea that Corbin Hollow was the most backward mountain community in the area due to its location ignores the fact that Pollock's resort, Skyland, was right next to Corbin Hollow.  At the time of the writing of Hollow Folk, Corbin Hollow had a long established relationship to Skyland.   Some families had been employed by Pollock for decades,  while others had traditionally sold him firewood, moonshine and even snakes for his famous snake dance. 

Though Hollow Folk notes this employment of Corbin Hollow residents by Skyland, it does not take its influence on the community into account.  Perhaps because Miriam Sizer and other researchers stayed at Skyland, Hollow Folk extends its objective observer status to Pollock's resort thereby maintaining its central thesis of Corbin Hollow's isolation.  
George Pollock in A Trip to Skyland

An equally plausible explanation of Corbin Hollow's problems could actually be the presence of Skyland. Indeed when the depression hit, Skyland stopped providing the income Corbin Hollow residents had come to rely on.  George Pollock reduced his employment of Corbin Hollow residents as his resort lost business.  Since  many Corbin Hollow residents no longer  farmed, they had become dependent on this income to obtain food and other necessities.  As there were few if any alternative sources of income in the mountains, Corbin Hollow residents quickly descended into poverty with the advent of the depression.  In Audrey Horning's book, In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain, she notes a FERA report published in 1935 that recognizes this connection. 

Skyland Guest Dressed as an Indian (Native American)
To display this issue of objectivity in the film, I placed some writings from Hollow Folk with some archival footage from the film, A Trip to Skyland and Shenandoah National Park.   I did it in reverse to display that Hollow Folks authors could just as well be talking about themselves and other guests at Skyland.

Skyland Guests from A Trip to Skyland.

Pollocks parties at Skyland worked well to illustrate Hollow Folk.  In another instance of role reversal -a major theme that runs throughout Rothstein's First Assignment; I found that I could easily recast Pollock's guests as the subjects of Hollow Folk.  Pollock's costumed parties more clearly 'illustrated' the authors 'long journey from primitive ways of living to modern social order,'  than did the residents of the five hollows they were studying.  Even Pollock's famous snake dance reflected a common stereotype of the region, that of religious snake handling.