Cold War International History Conference: Paper by Nick Natanson
Old Frontiers, New Frontiers:
Reassessing USIA and State Department Photography of the Cold War Era
Nick Natanson, NWCS-Stills Archivist
Figure 7 of this paper, "President Kennedy Greeting Airport Well-Wishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 1963" has been copyrighted by Jack Corn and by The Tennessean.
The last time that I spoke positively about a figure respected during the Cold War, I walked, unknowingly, into an intellectual minefield. "Richard Hofstadter?" retorted a scholar in 1986 after I had praised some of the historian's 1950s insights. "He was chicken defecation [using the more graphic barnyard expression]. Just like all the rest of those consensus historians. Wouldn't acknowledge progressive forces and reactionary forces . . ." More barnyard curses ensued, and scholarly heads around the discussion group in which I was participating nodded solemnly.
When the tirade was over, one of the speaker's colleagues advised me: "Maybe you shouldn't mention Richard Hofstadter anymore."
As I learned later, the enraged New Left scholar was also a prominent photo-historian. I've often speculated, in the years since, what violent epithets would have been heard had I made a positive reference to Cold War-era government photography. Such would have been another "unmentionable," no doubt, for fashionable academics in the 1980s, and again in the 1990s as New Left paradigms have given way to more intellectually radical post-modernist paradigms. Under the latter, Cold War official images become vehicles for the international propagation not merely of American capitalist values but of white, middle-class, male values as well. In short, chicken defecation, and worse.
This time, I venture more knowingly into the fray. I do not intend to offer a profoundly new interpretation of Cold War era government photography. What I will attempt is a clarification of the "who," "what," and "how" of photographic production, editing, and dissemination for one of the key photo-gathering agencies of the 1950s-1980s, the U.S. Information Agency. And what I will suggest, within the acknowledged bounds of my liberal humanist bias, are some modest re-valuations of USIA, and related Department of State, photographers and photographic output.
The functional and ideological roots of the USIA photographic program lay with the systematic visual propaganda activities of the Office of War Information Overseas Branch (1942-1945). The latter's News and Features Bureau Picture Division tapped the full range of picture sources -- OWI staff and non-staff, government and commercial -- in order to disseminate abroad visions of American industrial and military strength, technological progress, ethnic and racial harmony, and cultural freedom. With the termination of the OWI at the end of World War II, the visual program was shifted to the Department of State, where it initially operated in reduced form.
Passage of the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948, which formally outlined the government's post-war global information and cultural exchange intentions, and President Truman's call for a "Campaign of Truth" to fight the Cold War in 1950, revitalized the entire propaganda operation, including visual activities within the Division of International Press and Publications (INP), later to be known as the International Press Service (IPS) and, still later, the Press and Publications Service. Once USIA was established as a separate entity in 1953, an International Press Service already well-organized to direct visual information at populations with low literacy rates (to communicate, as one USIA photographer strategically based in Vietnam later put it, "in a language which everyone everywhere in the world understands -- pictures") became a core unit in the new agency, and would figure prominently in USIA operations through the next four decades.
The INP/IPS generated a variety of textual and visual materials for dissemination through the growing network of U.S. Information Service (USIS) foreign posts. In addition to operating the Wireless File (daily radioteletype transmission of news and feature material), the International Press Service issued an OWI-style stream of photo-stories, filmstrips, exhibits, pamphlets, book and magazine reprints, as well as the agency's own monthly magazines that were logical outgrowths of OWI's picture-oriented, Life Magazine-influenced periodicals. Beginning with the Russian-language America Illustrated in 1956, IPS expanded its mass-audience titles over the next three decades to include the Arab-language Al Hayat and the Africa-directed Topic, among others. In addition, IPS assisted in the production of several magazines that came directly out of USIS offices (most notably, Span in India, Trends in Japan, Interlink in Nigeria, World Today in Hong Kong, and Free World in the Philippines).
Keying the picture assemblage for the assorted productions was the INP/IPS's Photographic Branch (renamed the Visual Materials Branch in the mid-1950s, and the Visual Services Branch in the 1970s), which drew in part on the work of staff camerapeople: such ex-military and newspaper photographers as Eugene Brown, Joseph O'Donnell, Gill DeWitt, Joseph Munroe, Frank Werner, Everet Bumgardner, and Lawrence Riordan in the early years; Oliver Pfeiffer, Joseph Pinto, George Szabo, Jack Lartz, and Shelby Smith in the 1960s and 1970s; Barry Fitzgerald, John Wicart, and Carol Hightower in more recent years.
In fact, the composition of the Branch staff reflected continuities with war information agencies, both in terms of literal holdovers (Riordan had photographed on the French front, and Werner in England, for the OWI Picture Division; feature photo section chief Howard Flynn was a former Picture Division chief; photographer and eventual America Illustrated picture editor Maria Ealand had worked in the OWI Domestic picture operation; photographer Tom Parker was a former mainstay with the War Relocation Authority) and in terms of similar representation of women as well as minority personnel.
Four female photographer-writers, including Ealand, Jean Speiser, Carolyn Ramsey, and Marie Thompson, helped anchor the late-1940s-early 1950s staff; Japanese-American photographer Yoichi Okamoto headed the Branch from 1957 to 1965, after which he moved to the White House for his better-known coverage of President Johnson; and Chinese-American photographer Yuki King handled numerous Washington, D.C. assignments in the late 1960s. Black cameraman Richard Saunders served as Topic's Africa correspondent in the late 1960s and 1970s; the following decade saw another black photographer, Dwight Somers, working on the headquarters staff. Even the Branch's practice, in the early years, of sending staff photographers into the field for extended photo-stories on aspects of American life recalled similar war information efforts, including the use of Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration photographers for overseas-aimed stories conceived by the pre-OWI Office of the Coordinator of Information.
Increasingly from the 1960s on, the Branch made use of freelance "stringers" to supplement, or supplant, the work of regular staffers, particularly for filling the frequent picture requests from foreign posts. And, from the very beginning, the Branch, like its OWI predecessor, was a photo-acquiring as well as a photo-sponsoring operation, purchasing copies of images from commercial wire-services, private studios, newspaper files, corporate files, and other government picture operations.
Beginning in the early years at State, and continuing through the final phase-down of USIA still picture operations in mid-1994, the Branch maintained a Photo Library with a "Master File" of photos relating to U.S. and foreign personalities, world events, and American economic, social, and cultural life. A direct successor to the OWI Overseas Branch Picture Library central file, with echoes as well of the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Domestic file from the previous decade, the "Master File" comprised a systematically organized, comprehensively indexed set of record prints and corresponding negatives -- or, in the case of color photos in later years, slides and/or transparencies -- for images selected out of the mass gathered for assorted USIA outpost needs and picture-story, pamphlet, exhibit, and magazine productions.
One of the most expansive (encompassing more than 190,000 prints, slides, and transparencies over the years) of government agency central photo files, the "Master File" has been transferred in periodically-culled blocs to the National Archives, where its respective components (Record Group 306, Series PS, PSA, PSB, PSC, PSD, and PSE, 1948-1983) have served many of our subject-oriented picture researchers as efficiently as the file once served USIA personnel.
Fortunately for context-oriented research, other Branch files have come as well, offering raw materials for investigating the nature of USIA picture editing and deployment. The 1950s-1980s picture-story sets (Series ST), comprising mostly "Master File" prints packaged with extended narratives, are prime examples of USIA word-picture coordination. The daily staff and stringer assignment coverages of political dignitaries, cultural events, and background life-in-America topics (Series SS, SSA, SSM, SSD, together spanning nearly 500,000 images, mostly in small-format negative, slide, and contact sheet form) contain a multitude of photographs not represented in the "Master File," as do the photo-morgues for the pamphlet series (Series PAM), for the magazine runs of America Illustrated, Topic, and Dialogue, and for filmstrip productions (Series FS and FS-CE). Assorted special-subject series, devoted to such topics as the 1965 U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic (Series DR), the early period of American involvement in the Vietnam War (Series MVP), and the USIA-sponsored 1955-1956 world tour of Edward Steichen's "Family of Man" photography exhibit (Series FM), provide further reaches of pictorial documentation.
Taken as a whole, these USIA series show revealing patterns of thematic inclusion and exclusion. One does not have to be raging critic of the Cold War establishment to note the constant USIA emphasis, through the decades, on the vitality of the American democratic process, federal government activism, U.S.-Third World educational and cultural exchange, American artistic and technological innovation, cooperation across racial, ethnic, economic, national lines. And one does not have to be a champion of current academic fashion to note the telling USIA silence with regard to the domestic anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s, and the anti-war movement, campus upheavals, the counter-culture, urban riots, the Black Power movement in the 1960s-1970s. Visual and textual evidence, along with oral history sources, reveal the variety of mechanisms for visual control, as well as the variety of concerns prompting that control.
Joseph O'Donnell, a former Marine Corps combat photographer whose early INP assignments in 1948 took him from the home of a truck driver in Arlington, Virginia [FIGURE 1] to the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina [FIGURE 2] to small-town polling stations in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania [FIGURE 3], found that INP administrative concerns about reaction in the American hinterland were sometimes as great as concerns about foreign response. As O'Donnell recalled recently while examining his work at the National Archives:
"I was down on the Cherokee Reservation to do a story on progress
-- the tribe opening a motel.
[FIGURE 4]. A group of us, reporters and photographers, were in a reception room, and someone from the reservation proposed a tour. So we visited various houses and farms around the place; I remember entering one cabin, and peering into a dark room where eight or nine Indian children were laid out, crosswise, on a single bed. That was all they had. I said to someone that I was shocked that conditions like this still existed in this country. Next morning, headline appears in a local newspaper, State Department Representative Appalled by Local Conditions.' Big embarrassment. I called my boss in Washington, D.C., and asked him, What do I do now?' He said, Only one thing to do. Buy up all the copies of that newspaper you can, so no more folks down there will see the headline!'"
O'Donnell's photographs from the Cherokee venture strategically emphasized distant cabin exteriors over interiors [FIGURE 5]; and, lest there be any doubt about the message of hope, Branch caption-writers later added the lead-in, "The life of the Cherokees, as an Indian tribe, [is] similar to that of other American people." The same verbal cue accompanied O'Donnell's series on the home life of truck driver Earl Marcey's large family in Arlington [FIGURE 6]-- obscuring the fact, as O'Donnell himself noticed and much later acknowledged, that "the family was kind of struggling -- the driver's income wasn't enough for all those kids." These sorts of captioning devices would continue, well beyond O'Donnell's two-decade still and motion picture career at USIA.
So would cropping techniques that could turn a complicated image, such as photo-journalist Jack Corn's view of a crowd not altogether supportive of President Kennedy's activist foreign policy, into a more upbeat vignette for a 1963 America Illustrated tribute to JFK [FIGURE 7]; or techniques, for the 1971 pamphlet advertising President Nixon's Vietnamization program, that could "eliminate" the more distracted-looking of the South Vietnamese soldiers on the march; or techniques, in the case of preparations for the 1974 pamphlet, Visit USA, that could turn a leather miniskirt-clad Sunset Boulevard regular into a tamer part of the University of California-Los Angeles campus scene.
Racial subject-matter posed particular challenges for visual shapers and re-shapers. In quantitative terms, the photographic commitment to black-related subjects was considerable, even before black journalist Carl Rowan's 1964-1965 tenure as USIA director. Visual personnel sought to respond to the constant entreaties from the field for materials counteracting Soviet and Chinese propaganda on the American racial divide, and materials answering the frequent commentary in the African, Indian, Arab, and Asian press concerning Southern resistance to the civil rights movement and the endurance of segregation, especially in the nation's capital. In qualitative terms, picture personnel sought ways to highlight the changing racial environment without, at the same time, conveying impressions of chaos, rage, or the lingering past.
As the USIA files show, selectivity proved crucial. For example,
while the Branch had one of its premier photographers, Shelby
Smith, cover the 1963 March on Washington, and while Smith's
coverage took in a wide array of signs, crowd angles, and
reactions of leaders and participants [FIGURE 8], the
images receiving the widest circulation were those focusing most closely
on the safer themes: inter-racial unity (for the pamphlet, To
Join Hands, and the picture-story, Good Will Marks the Washington
[FIGURE 9], and individual faces of inspiration (for the picture-story, Faces of the March). For the frequent photo-stories touching on the everyday lives of American blacks, advance scripting came into play. Recalled O'Donnell:
"With other kinds of assignments, we usually didn't have written instructions -- the [propaganda angle] was pretty much understood. But with the racial subject, there would be these warnings. For instance, if you came upon blacks and whites working together, you were never supposed to show the white seeming to be above the black, ordering him around; that wouldn't go over well abroad."
Also indicative, in this regard, are the instructions that USIA picture editors gave to staff cameraman Yuki King for a 1967 story on teenage bag-boys at a Washington, D.C. supermarket, and to staff photographer George Szabo for another Washington, D.C. story the following year on the middle-class black family of Leroy Copeland. The original conception of the supermarket coverage was that it would highlight the general phenomenon of American teenage part-time employment. However, as the photographer was advised by Topic Magazine picture editor Ellen Kemper, there was a priority story within the story for the Africa-directed publication:
"Safeway tells us that both Negro and white kids work at the Naylor Road store. We'd like to show both in the picture. We also want to suggest that many kids work -- so [you] should shoot down the line of checkout counters, showing a row of kids at work. Please make sure that the youngest and most attractive are in the foreground, and that at least two Negroes appear in the foreground." [FIGURE 10]
For the Copeland coverage, designed to fill a request by a Pretoria, South Africa newspaper for a small photo feature on a black family, USIA feature editors Judy Munske and Shirley Kahn wanted the photographer to combine the themes of racial cooperation and black self-sufficiency. Accordingly, Szabo was told to document Leroy Copeland's part-time job at a black-managed funeral chapel ("suggest shot of Mr. Copeland with his boss in the chapel discussing funeral arrangements . . . show Copeland [with]a nice background, and [activities] in good taste") [FIGURE 11], while also catching Ethel Copeland in her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "We need only two situations showing Mrs. Copeland at work and suggest the following: 1. medium-long-shot of Mrs. Copeland at her desk showing her white colleagues in near background (they to do not necessarily have to be working directly with her) [FIGURE 12]; 2. close-up shot of Mrs. Copeland bringing some material to her supervisor, Mr. Kendall."
Interestingly, none of Szabo's resulting shots of Mrs. Copeland's interactions with her white supervisor were selected for release -- perhaps the proximity of the two in the pictures was judged too close for South African standards, or perhaps images of a white supervisor standing over a black employee violated the aforementioned USIA policy. [FIGURE 13] However the Copeland story was received in Pretoria, the greatest irony was the coverage date: April 3, 1968. Only a day later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and Washington, D.C. and other cities were in flames.
Such divergences between USIA visual constructions and actual experiences were many. But lest one summarily dismiss USIA photographers and photography as creating our own government's version of "socialist realism," several factors should be kept in mind. While the photographers were certainly knowing and willing participants in visual manipulations, there was more than simply crass opportunism operating behind the cameras.
Consider O'Donnell. Only 26 years old when he joined USIA, he had already been to documentary Hell and back with the Marines in occupied Japan. Taking leave from his official photographic duties in September, 1945, O'Donnell had toured, and photographed, the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His response to the experience -- filing the negatives away, turning to a very different sort of photographic career, only printing and publishing the Japan images decades later -- was unfortunate from a documentary standpoint, but understandable in psychological terms. In a 1994 illustrated memoir, Ground Zero, O'Donnell wrote of the negatives stashed, literally and figuratively, in a storage trunk: "As I took them out carefully, half afraid to look at them, the frightful images turned into real life scenes . . . This was a man-made disaster of the cruelest kind -- not just a crime against history but against humanity . . . I could see the victims with flies and maggots covering their bodies. I could hear them crying for help. I smelled their stench from burned flesh -- that I will never forget. I became depressed and dreaded going to sleep because the repulsive nightmares kept taking me back -- and I hated remembering."
If sustaining a troubleshooting brand of documentary photography involves idealism, it also necessitates a measure of ongoing clinical detachment that O'Donnell did not have; and we should avoid the smug assumption that photographers of the World War II generation ought to have been able to continue indefinitely in the "combat" mode. USIA camerapeople were complicated individuals who, amid all the limiting conditions of USIA assignments, nevertheless developed as photographic professionals. And they managed to generate some images that, in aesthetic or thematic terms, pushed beyond public relations predictability.
Note, for example, O'Donnell's view, from the 1948 Lancaster election series, perceptively juxtaposing the private space of the voting booth with the remote appearance of a Mennonite voter, his face all but obscured by curtain, hat, beard, and a vaguely defiant cigar. [FIGURE 14] The same subtlety would emerge, as well, in the O'Donnell-led 1955 USIA coverage of Vice-President Nixon's "goodwill" tour of Central America and the Caribbean. Although the latter documented little of the social and economic conditions in these troubled nations, and nothing of the overt anti-American protest that Nixon sometimes encountered, there were some remarkable photographic glances: the vast sea of stern, unsmiling faces comprising the crowd that greeted the Nixon entourage at Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras; or the sociologically suggestive play of contrasting hand positions and facial expressions in a view of Nixon meeting sandlot baseball players in Managua, Nicaragua.
Whatever the propagandistic purposes they might have been put to,
works by other USIA photographers, as well, contribute to our
understanding of events, personalities, trends: whether Everet
Bumgardner's shot of an uncomfortable pause amid the 1959 Nixon-Khrushchev theatrics in
[FIGURE 15]; or Jack Lartz' views
of the protest signs (including one making the politically-sensitive connection between the
Vietnam and civil rights issues) in evidence during 1965 civil rights demonstrations and
neo-Nazi counter-demonstrations in front of the White House
and his further glances that same year at history-charged protest
signs carried by Dominican women demonstrating against the U.S.
intervention [FIGURE 17]; or USIA stringer Christopher
Springmann's less-than-reverent coverage of religious services at
a California drive-in church in 1979. Especially with regard to
Springmann and other non-staffers in the later years, the very
nature of the editor-freelancer relationship worked against
"I hired freelancers like Springmann for their talent," recalled 1970s magazine picture editor and later Visual Materials head Lee Battaglia. "The last thing I wanted to to do was direct them. I emphasized, seize the moment. Take responsibility.'"
In the case of photographer and editor Yoichi Okamoto, the trajectory of a career suggests the potential of the USIA for cultivating creativity. The compositional and thematic experiments, the brooding visions pursued in his late 1940s-early 1950s Army and USIS work in Austria [FIGURE 18], pointed forward to his edgy, haunting studies of President Johnson for USIA and, later, the White House [FIGURE 19]; and the LBJ work, in turn, pointed forward to his darkly penetrating look at suburban life for the Environmental Protection Agency's DOCUMERICA Project in 1974 [FIGURE 20]. So went the USIA dialectic: in the belly of the propaganda program there were photographic stirrings that could eventually result in propaganda's antithesis.
Political motives notwithstanding, USIA's commitment to the still photographic medium was as rare as it was long-term: extending the central file framework, through mechanisms such as picture indexing, in the very decades when most other agencies were abandoning the notion of a photo file that would serve anything more than immediate publication needs; providing work and international exposure for dozens of talented young freelancers across the country; sponsoring major exhibit projects from the 1955 "Family of Man" tour through the "Ten Photographers" exhibit at Expo 70 (Series EXA) and the photo-oriented paper shows of later years (Series PSP). Although the "Family of Man" tour has been lambasted by current academics convinced of the connection between the assertion of universal human values and American imperialism, the event nevertheless contributed to public recognition of photography as a legitimate art form. "What has come out of it?" one Munich exhibit reviewer mused. "A case for many theoretical discussions on art and the problems of photography on a new level." And even "Family of Man" critics can reap the benefits of typical USIA project self-documentation, including the extensive clippings from foreign reviews and the intriguing photographs of exhibit viewers.
When we also take into account the related photographic operation at State -- the "mother" agency from which USIA emerged at mid-century, and to which it will return at century's end -- there was a further respect in which the visual propaganda program contributed more than propaganda.
Following the USIA split-off, State developed a parallel central picture file devoted to diplomatic officials and events, ultimately encompassing more than 214,000 images over five decades (the 1950-1992 block transferred to the National Archives several years ago, and available to researchers as Record Group 59, Series N, G, O, BP, and SE, among others). Keying the growth of still picture activities within State's Visual Services Division was a former New Deal photographer, James Stephen "Steve" Wright, who, when he became Photography Branch chief in 1954, found himself in a unique position at State: a black administrator in one of the most racially conservative, convention-bound agencies in Washington, D.C.
Wright's ascent was no simple product of tokenism. It was one step for a foreign-policy agency to appoint a black photographer to cover the Africa angle (as in the case of USIA's appointment of Richard Saunders), quite another for the agency to have a black man presiding over what was initially a largely white staff. Wright helped to bring in, and promote, black photographers Robert McNeill and Whitney Keith; and together, the black cameramen accounted for over a third of the more than 110,000 images generated by State from the end of the 1940s to the mid-1970s. As significant as the photographic output was Wright's insistence on breaking with the New Deal and war information assumption that black photographers were to deal primarily with black subject-matter. [FIGURE 21] "My policy was that the assignment, regardless of the subject, went to whoever happened to be available that moment," recalled Wright recently. "And the same person who did the shooting then did all the lab work for that coverage, so there'd be no question about control. [FIGURE 22] I think McNeill and the others understood that to try to force more [State coverage] of the civil rights movement and other [controversial] issues would have been counter-productive. The point was that when you covered the powerful people . . . you were going to be better treated, and better paid . . . Grade 7 was the [pay-scale] hump blacks in government hadn't been able to get over. I got people over it." [FIGURE 23]
Wright's success with this approach, pragmatic in one sense and idealistic in another, set an important precedent for other civilian agencies. It is no coincidence that in more recent decades, black photographers, far from being anomalies, or compartmentalized "special" correspondents, have played decisive roles across government. In this sense, the sequence of connections that made possible the creative work of a current black photographer such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Gerald Dean (witness Dean's provocative 1985 shot of Vice-President George Bush juxtaposed with a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.) went back, ironically, to the Cold War.[FIGURE 24]
"When Wright first arrived at State," Robert McNeill has told me, "it was a place where a white man might get in trouble if he were seen talking to a black man at the Coke machine. But Wright had a way with people; by the time I got there , he was able to protect us from the worst of [racism]. I did the assignments everybody else did. Not necessarily the slices of life' I had a chance to capture when I was out on my own for the [1938 Federal Writers' Project] Negro in Virginia story -- but the challenge is different when you're a professional. I wanted to be recognized for my work as a photographer. Not a black photographer. A photographer." [FIGURE 25]