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Altered States:
Getting Drunk on Images with Michael Lesy

By Laura Anne Brooks

Your mother might easily mistake photo historian Michael Lesy's books as picturesque, ideal for door prizes at the next PTA meeting, only to be bombarded by circus freaks, dead babies, well hung horses, natural disasters, the perils of urbanization and the consequences of American imperialism upon opening.

The cover of his latest work, Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943, "looks completely patriotic," notes Lesy, a professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. "But if you look closely...the woman on the left is missing a leg... The book is supposed to send a double message. One is nostalgia and patriotism, which I believe in. The other is darkness and the complexity of that darkness that's inside of that sweet, temperate vision of small town life...What I've always wanted to do was to change people's wiring for about a thirtieth of a second so they become, in a really momentary way more alive. In other words, the books have the quality of a really good drug experience. "

Photo by Edwin Rosskam 1941.

Long Time Coming is comprised of book excerpts, correspondences, shooting scripts, and images taken for the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.). The collection chronicles the team of photographers (names like Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, and John Vachon) supervised by Roy Stryker and sent out by the government on scripted missions to document American life from the Depression to World War II.

As far as his writing method is concerned, Lesy is a verbal collagist. His juxtapositions are oftentimes grim, but so is the social and political logic he seeks to reveal by examining the frequent ethical and emotional disregard of Americans throughout U.S. history.

Inspired by the Time Life photographic history books organized by decade, Lesy had an epiphany: "They just bored the shit out of me," he says, flatly. "I wanted to do something that said, 'No, you can tell another story...I [am] going to steadily be chewing my way through the collective consciousness of the images of the United States, decade by decade.'"

I asked Lesy about Paul Vanderbilt, the organizational guru who archived some 165,600 F.S.A. photos in 1944 at their final resting-place inside the Library of Congress.

Photo by John Vachon 1940.
"Paul is sort of part of that generation of people who grew up and realized that there is another way to communicate, and it's just as powerful and perhaps even more powerful because it's subversive and tacit. You can change people's thinking using images without them knowing that you've just messed with their mind.... Because of Paul I began to work on larger and larger collections of images.... Stories about Paul being drunk on images, coming in, and [passing] out on a pile of photos as he was organizing the whole collection-those were famous."

For Long Time Coming, Lesy estimates he viewed 80,000 images, conservatively speaking. "Eventually you'd pass through this kind of barrier membrane and it's really like time travel," he says. "People think you need to do it with machines, but you can actually do it-just sitting and looking at image after image, one second at a time. Who knows, if people put electrodes on my head, they'd probably see I was in an altered state."

Is the title Lesy's cryptic response to post September 11th, why us, why now inquiries?

"I think if you really go deep and make the art, it will turn out that there are huge unaccountable and unanticipated links to the rest of the world inside the art making," offers Lesy. "So, if there are, and I hope there are, all sorts of hidden, cunning secrets inside Long Time Coming that link up with our present predicament, then I will have done the right thing. You'll know I've done it."

The book hit store shelves last month, and as premature as any addict, Lesy is already craving more images.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein 1938.
"I had hoped to use this book in order to convince people that another photographic survey of the United States on the scale that produced the (F.S.A.) file was something that ought to be done. Maybe people will say, 'Boy it's an amazing effort at a moment of crisis maybe we should try to do this again.' I don't think we'll ever be able to do it again. Because I don't think people are as trusting or as desperate or naive in the presence of a government photographer, as they once were.... I'd like to do something that Stryker did in a way that was more aware and conscious than he was."

Lesy says he would also like to hire the talent for such an undertaking and preside over the images, witnessing photographs roll out in perpetual streams of negatives across his desk. Like some sort of third party user, he shows no sign of restraint when it comes to watching what people shoot.

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Behind in your reading?
Check out past ATOMIC features.

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2000 Articles List
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2003 Articles List
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Broadway By the Year: 1939
Michael Lesy's Altered States
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