Tradition and Modernity in Ben Shahn's American Scene, 1938

Monday 19 January at 18:30 in EV 1.605
Concordia University

John Raeburn
University of Iowa

In the summer of 1938 Ben Shahn photographed a dozen small towns in central Ohio for the Farm Security Administration, and working in such a limited geographical area and over an extended period permitted him scope to approximate an ethnographic survey of these communities. Among his some-320 photographs a substantial fraction address a tension between the small towns' traditional ways of life and their embrace of modernity, notably in the form of mass entertainment and communications, consumer culture, and universal car ownership. Shahn had initially conceived of his Ohio project as a tribute to the American small town as the avatar of traditional democratic culture, a goal consonant with his fervent anti-fascism of the late thirties, but once on the ground in Ohio his artist's critical eye would not permit him to disregard entirely the transformations modernity was introducing into community life. As a result his survey of the American small town as the bastion of traditional  values is profoundly equivocal, and his ambivalence illuminates several key cultural conflicts that were percolating just below the more obvious perturbations brought on by the Great Depression.

John Raeburn is the author of A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of Thirties Photography (2006). Professor of American studies and English at the University of Iowa, John Raeburn has been writing and lecturing on documentary photography, racial representations, and photographic culture since the 1980s. His concurrent literary and cinematic interests have generated a monograph, Fame Became of Him: Hemingway as a Public Writer (1984) and a collection co-edited with Richard Glatzer, Frank Capra: The Man and His Films (1975). He has recently completed a book-length study of Ben Shahn.


Image: Ben Shahn, A&P store in Somerset, Ohio, Summer 1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington