The Human Document makes engrossing study of suffering and desperation

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Photographs of people facing despair and suffering, decades and thousands of miles apart, make up the engrossing exhibition The Human Document.

Subtitled The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day, the exhibition at the Mead Gallery, is based largely on works shown at a 1962 New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Bitter Years.

This used 200 images taken in the 1930s by a group of photographers working for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme, with the aim of proving to better-off Americans the desperate state of rural communities and the need for the New Deal programme.

During the Second World War 70,000 prints and 170,000 negatives were transferred into the Library of Congress in Washington (and many are now available to be downloaded).

This exhibition shows many of the images from The Bitter Years exhibition, alongside photographs by contemporary photographers also documenting sides of life that would otherwise remain hidden to many people.

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The American photographs are fascinating. All small and black and white, they show an unimaginable life. In the first image inside the door, by Arthur Rothstein, two wagon wheels lie in a pile of dust in front of abandoned farm, making the point that the resident of the shack behind isn’t going anywhere useful on their cart any more. Rothstein’s other images include an animal skull on cracked ground, and a withered crop. He also showed people being forcibly moved from living alongside a road to land between the Mississippi and the levee, and abandoned furniture of those on the move.

Marion Post Wolcott’s Old Negro shows a miserable man picking at a thread on his worn clothing. Ben Shahn has captured images of destitute Ozark people in Arkansas, including a girl clutching a damaged doll, itself wearing rags, and a little boy cuddling two kittens, his clothes as ragged as the those of the doll.

Dorothea Lange’s many images are some I kept returning to. She has photographed a sharecropping family on the move, mum in a bonnet clutching her baby, a sad little boy and anguished father.

She also pictured black cotton pickers, who worked from 6am-7pm for $1, and the image is hung next to another of hers, showing a fat white plantation owner with his car; the documentary and persuasive nature of the photographs is important to note too.

However it wasn’t as simple as black vs white; a white tenant family’s home is shown, a plain bed on the porch of a house propped up with bricks. Lange is particularly good at capturing images of young mothers, old before their time, trailing across the country with their husbands and children in search of any sort of better life.

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Her photograph of the 32-year-old ‘migrant mother’ of seven children, Florence Thompson, pictured (above) with a baby and two young children in a pea picking camp, became a famous image, her tough life leaving her looking more like 45, and is included here, as well as a fascinating interview with Florence in the accompanying free catalogue. Despite her incredibly hard life she lived to 80, though her own mother had made 108.

Lange also photographed an old woman in Kern County migrant camp in California, her only comfort a rocking chair in an open-fronted tent.

There are countless images here all showing homelessness and suffering seen many times around the world, including of course now on the daily news.

The works by contemporary artists are mostly also from the west, and show a side of life missed by many. Three sets stand out.

Chris Killip’s photographs from the north of England from the 1970s-90s, show bleak back streets in Tynemouth, and what appear to be travellers but are specifically sea coalers, people who harvest then sell washed-up coal. Their messy camp and a little girl playing with a hoola-hoop next to a burnt-out fire and wrecked furniture document a difficult way of life at the time.

Paul Graham’s colour collection, Beyond Caring, is made up of covertly-taken photographs of people in social security offices. Fed-up faces, and bored body language dominate here. People forced into a community in the offices where they don’t communicate with anyone.

Richard Billingham’s Ray’s A Laugh series are painful for the knowledge they feature his own family. His dad falls from a chair in their cramped flat, or glares at a cat hissing on a cabinet cluttered with ornaments. His mum hand feeds a kitten, and his brother licks yoghurt from the lid of a basic brand.

Different times, and different viewpoints set the more recent works apart, but it’s a show not to be missed for work by talented photographers capturing images from the times they lived in, and looking to tell a story to others.

* Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, until December 10.

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