Old-Timey Timebomb

This Members of the Moors, a Negro religious group of Chicago, Illinois. By Russell Lee

This Members of the Moors, a Negro religious group of Chicago, Illinois. By Russell Lee

A beautiful book of 461 prints by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and others culled from the Library of Congress’s Farm Security Administration collection (a New Deal project that covered far more than farms), Long Time Coming may strike you at first as a nostalgia trip back to the days depicted on the cover: when whole towns lined up to watch their Boy Scout troops march down the street waving American flags. But Lesy hasn’t combed the archive’s 150,000-plus negatives only to offer up a tribute to lost Americana. Try putting this book out on your coffee table; lean close, and you’ll hear it ticking.

Since Wisconsin Death Trip, which announced its Virgilian intention in its title, all of Lesy’s collections of photographs — Time Frames, Bearing Witness, and Dreamland, among them — have been timebombs, secret sermons disguised as collections of old-timey pictures. It might be more accurate to compare them to the scrolls Jeremiah hid in clay jars. Bury them or dig them up and smash them, burn the contents, try and forget the story — they’ll keep coming back to you.

Many of the images in this book — a little girl sprinting up an alley in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, beneath rows of washing and before the disinterested stares of the older girls and women; the backs of five bony men as they carry a homemade coffin up a rocky path in Jackson, Kentucky; an angry black Muslim in Chicago leading his two stricken-looking sons on an errand or into fanaticism — are as haunting and disturbing as anything Lesy has presented in his earlier work. They are also weirdly filled with hope. Neither inspiring, exactly, nor sentimentally-portrayed, the men, women, and children in these photographs might, looked at by themselves, fade away quickly. Gathered together in all their painful glory, they seem possessed of a Faulknerian quality: They endure.

Long Time Coming is best looked at it not just once and slowly, but several times over. At least once go through quickly, flipping the pages as if to set the coal miners, preachers, nuns, farmers, carny barkers, and bankers contained therein into continuous motion. Follow the running girl from Ambride, PA to the family wrestling and splashing and staring at the camera (beneath a giant billboard for Iron City Pilsner, “Just a sip at twilight”) in a “homemade swimming pool for steelworker’s children” on the following right-hand page; and on to a thick column of a mother — the girl grown up? — marching, baby in hand, past “Factory workers’ homes, Camden, New Jersey,” and then back to an alley, where now a young black boy stands staring at the camera defiantly even as he keeps his distance from it.

Sequences such as these abound throughout Long Time Coming, stories of escape and capture, of growing old and being born again. Sometimes literally: One remarkable sequence follows a river baptism in Kentucky, another the laying into the ground of a black steelworker and the wailing of the preacher and mourners. But beyond those literal progressions, there are stories told by shapes: A woman in a long black coat dominates the middle of a frame of a pleasant residential street in Woodbine, Iowa, as does a bent-over drifter crossing a dry, empty road in Dubuque, and a traffic cop standing like a statue in the middle of street glistening with rain in Norwich, Connecticut. The black hole at the center of a mountain man’s guitar leads to the white sphere of a black musician’s maracas, which in turn foreshadow the white straw hats seen from above at a cockfight in Puerto Rico.

That these stories slowly reveal themselves as morality plays is no accident; both Lesy, and the man who originally commissioned the photographs, intended them as such. There are eight chapters of text interspersed throughout Long Time Coming, in which the mastermind of the F.S.A. documentary project, a man named Roy Stryker, is introduced, mocked, and redeemed. A bureaucrat with tyrannical tendencies, Stryker drew up lists of books for his photographers to read in order to “understand” America — cut-and-dried sociology, experts on regional hygiene — and “shooting scripts” the photographers were supposed to adhere to. “Husking bees. Barn dance; hay rides — Halloween — football games; making pies — mince meat and pumpkin; turkey dinners; picking feathers from the ducks.” In his attempt to control reality’s representation, Stryker ended up composing prose poems of Americana, which in turn became the major chords of a symphony much expanded by the keen eyes of the photographers.

The whole is a requiem mass. The fact that its subject — the United States — continues to exist doesn’t so much refute its minor chords as make them all the more relevant to the Coplandesque sweeps of optimism: elements of a portrait of what the country was, is, and — isn’t this the point of all propaganda? — may yet be. Roy Stryker saw these photographs as facts; the ordinary citizens who viewed them understood them as testimonies. “Every new form of communication,” writes Lesy, “every new kind of media, has been and will always be a blind, blunt, crippled effort to make the past into the present, the far into the near, the outside into the inside, to turn us all, for a moment, into supernal beings…. The File” — the collection of 145,000 photographs — “had the potential to create, over time, an experience of totality that felt boundless… It’s as grand a thing, in its own way, as Yosemite or Yellowstone. It’s the common property of every citizen of the United States. It belongs to us. It is us.”

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).