Today’s blog is written by Arizona State Museum’s archivist Amy Rule. She can be found working alongside the rest of the Library and Archives staff in the beautiful second floor reading room at ASM providing preservation and access to the over 1500 linear feet of archival and manuscript holdings.
In my job as the archivist for ASM each day is predictably unpredictable. You might think every researcher who walks in the door is seeking information about archaeological sites, ethnographic objects, or information on southwestern Native cultures. This is true for some visitors, but an amazingly wide range of questions come my way. In recent weeks I have assisted people with research topics on baseball, newspaper cartoonists, the anthropology of garbage, peyote rituals, mission bells, and library architecture. Even basic questions about the archaeology of the southwest sometime take me down unexpected archival avenues.
For example, recently I was looking into the Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Papers, a collection known for its wealth of information about Yaqui culture. I was surprised to find a photograph by noted American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Lange is famous for images she produced for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s when she became adept at making portraits such as “Migrant Mother” (1936) that brilliantly puts a human face on the impact of the Great Depression.
In 1942 Lange was hired by the WPA to photograph at the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, but was ordered not to make images of the guard towers or barbed wire fences and definitely not to photograph any signs of resistance among the internees. Her failure to follow orders resulted in her photographs begin impounded by the US Army.
At first glance, Lange’s photograph in the Spicer Papers depicts merely a quiet, dusty San Francisco shop window empty except for a few potted plants. On close inspection, however, the photograph shouts to us with its poignant, ironic content. A patriotic poster in the background reads “I am proud to be an American,” but a handwritten sign in the foreground warns customers to pick up their laundry soon because the owner is being taken to an internment camp.
Anthropologists have used photography as a tool since at least the 1860s. Today we are familiar with faces, clothing, homes, crafts, and even attitudes toward the anthropologist through photographs made in the field by early adventurer/scientists. The discovery of Dorothea Lange’s photograph in the ASM Archives, however, reminds us that a human being does not always have to be present in a photograph for it to contain a great deal of human information. Even without a single person in front of the camera, a photographer like Lange can use mute objects to reveal the unfolding of a complex human drama.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange. “Evacuation deadline, desolate, empty window ‘I am proud to be an American,’ “ San Francisco, 1942. Reproduction print in Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Papers, ASM Library and Archives.