Picturing Difference: Documentary Practices and San Francisco's Chinatown

The oldtimers believe we have a heavenly weight, and that they can divine a person’s fate by weighing his or her bones.  But what was left to predict or foresee?

                        --Fae Myenne Ng

In its originary form, documentary photography trades on a proposition—one that is by now intensely naturalized in Western visual culture—that the viewer of socially engaged photographs and the (human) subject depicted share a connectedness that implicates both the viewer and the viewed in a single social world, from which political and moral appeal then become possible.  In the Progressive Era work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, the possibility of hitching of photography to the tasks of moral suasion and political persuasion trades on two other terms as well.  First, it is grounded in a rhetoric of wanted shock, which even a hundred years ago figured as an element of mass culture, and which documentary succeeded in elevating to a matter of ethical cultivation—the documentary photograph embodying the same willingness to be shocked, stirred, abraded and disquieted (seemingly) for the sake of social progress that continues to anchor liberal social consciousness today.  Second, it pivots on an overt and visible social alterity, a recognition that what is pictured precisely describes an overcoming of a social barrier between one half and the “other half” (Riis), the bringing of light “in floods” to what otherwise remains in darkness (Hine).(1)

This is not to conflate Riis and Hine, who are quite different photographers.  While both are interested in the use of the photography as exposé for sociopolitical reform, Riis is inclined toward what we might now call victim photography, condescending views of disempowered souls whose affliction (we are given to understand) stems from the lack of enlightened social policy.  Hine’s purpose in his child labor photographs, by contrast, is a thoroughgoing critique of economic injustice through pictures, a careful disclosure of social facts through a complex visual appeal, and ultimately the possibility of ethical education in the act of seeing photographs of people who are wronged but not incapacitated [Fig. 1].  Unlike Riis, whose subjects are passive, generally downtrodden and the object of pity or enlightened social responsibility, Hine shows people who have not succumbed, who have not capitulated—subjectified subjects, as it were, who are also subjected to intolerable exploitation.  This is what Hine considers the “human document.”(2)

Figure 1.  Lewis Hine, Factory Boy, Glassworks, 1909

If Riis’ and Hine’s chief accomplishment was to use photography to force upon viewers conditions of irreconcilability—in Riis’ case through an undomesticated naturalism for the sake of an appeal to legal protections for the disenfranchised, and in Hine’s case an aesthetic refinement to call the viewer before a poverty of reason and of heart—the upshot for future photographers was the possibility of a productive crisis of meaning through pictures, a visual insistence that we who see the picture dwell in the same unrepaired world as the subject seen.  It is crucial to note, though, that practical action through photography depended from the outset on two things:  photographers capable of directing the (narrative) contingencies of still pictures toward social legibility of very particular kinds, and a political climate and popular culture receptive to this gesture. 

What is immediately noteworthy about the history of photography in San Francisco’s Chinatown is its apartness from the preceding account of the rise of the photograph as document in the twentieth century.  At the very moment that photographs in New York and elsewhere in the East became evidence for reformers’ agendas, virtually none among the contemporaneous photographs in San Francisco’s Chinatown speak in the mode of programmatic testimony, or for the sake of reform, for legal protection for Chinese immigrants, or the normalization of communal relations.  Though Chinatown was a place rife with economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement, and almost by definition a place of refuge from violence and vituperation, San Francisco’s Chinese community had no Lewis Hine and no Jacob Riis.

This is not to say that the neighborhood was sparingly photographed.  In fact it was actively photographed as early as the 1870s—as it was also drawn, painted, cartooned, caricatured and described in texts, predominately by and for non-Chinese.(3)  As with early documentary in immigrant neighborhoods in New York, representing social difference formed a key mandate for early documentary practices in California, and for this reason Chinatown was the most important location for sustained documentary work on the West coast.  But where picturing social difference in the Eastern U.S. was linked (through the figure of the crusading photographer) to causes, photography in San Francisco’s Chinatown remained linked to the authorizing activity of independent observation itself.  Specifically, as I will argue below, social observation in San Francisco pivoted on tensions between certitude and experiment, scopic control and pictorial irresolution.  In the Western U.S., these tensions do not mark contradictions in the documentary idiom, as they do in the more familiar Eastern U.S. narrative, but form the very basis—the point of departure—for social meaning through pictures.

In the earlier of two anonymous views of the neighborhood [Fig. 2], we are situated on the south side of Sacramento Street looking east toward the Bay, sometime during the middle of the day.  The picture is curious in that it forms a sort of sutured panorama, as if two impulses fused into one frame:  on the left, a long view of the receding line of the neighborhood’s buildings and San Francisco’s topography, and on the right, extending almost halfway into the frame, the intricacies of shopfronts in which goods tidily occupy lattices of shelves and benches—perhaps for display, or more likely as one location in their movement in and out of businesses, of which the crates and barrels stacked on the curbside, and the waiting horse and half filled buggy show other stages.  In effect, the picture offers two perspectives on commerce, one far and one close, tied together by the tacit conviction that it is commerce that orders and structures civic life in San Francisco—regardless of the ethnicity of any of the city’s quarters. 

Figure 2.  Anonymous, San Francisco, Calif.,--China Town, Sacramento Street, c.1866

Mediating the two sides of the picture is a pedestrian, his blurred, barely beshouldered head hovering at the bottom of the photograph, blocking the view down the sidewalk and so impeding the visual gravity of the picture.  Central and insistent, the figure contributes the picture’s manifest “Chineseness.”  But what is this Chineseness?  As the picture offers it:  a presence that is not quite there and not quite not-there, not quite embodied and not quite spectral, not quite anticipated and not quite overlooked.  If we read this figure as a metonym for the entire community, his indeterminacy becomes its indeterminacy, his inscrutability its foreignness. 

If the figure’s presence is awkward, even jarring, it is at the same time folded into a larger visual intricacy—into a demanding interplay of small passages of alternating light and shadow (including the sky, whose cumulous clouds were probably added from a separate negative), and into the picture’s way of setting near and deep space against strong lateral and diagonal movements across the visual plane.  In its pictorial texture, the photograph effectively positions the materiality of the street under the chatoyant operations of light, and so challenges a simple sense that it is “things” we see in photographs, or that the primary job of photographs is to find things in their essential intactness, apart from the changes they continuously undergo.  The implications of the picture’s appearance in turn extend to the nature of its social descriptiveness as a “document.”  Altogether, what seems most unresolved in Fig. 2—that is, at stake—is the question of whether the photograph as document is to reconstitute seeing as an exercise in social knowing, or alternatively, as a prompt toward social experiencing itself.  In the former case, how is it to handle momentariness and fragmentariness as forms of social information, and in the latter case, how it is to handle precisely equivocal types of social encounter? 

Both Figs. 2 and 3 were, originally, tourist photographs, likely published in illustrated guidebooks or directories, or circulated as postcards.  Fig. 3, a tourist picture captioned in both English and German, is one half of a stereograph, and formed part of a set of stereo cards sold as educational aids-cum-parlor entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century.   These sets, sometimes as large as a thousand cards, took the viewer on a visual expedition through cities, regions and continents, integrating landscapes, cityscapes and what might be called brushes with local culture.  Ambitious in their scope, if formulaic in their execution, each set of stereo cards was a voyage in cultural geography—and also an entry in what aspired to be a visual encyclopedia, a collection of many such voyages crisscrossing the globe, whose presentation linked the photographs to detailed, statistically laden texts (often on the back of the stereo cards), exhaustive cross referencing information, and maps in and against which the pictures could be imaginatively placed.(4)  As such the tourist idiom reflected the reconnaissant exigency of the survey tradition, and elaborated its empiricism as a blending of rationalized control and visual imagination—what might be thought of as the mandate of encyclopedic knowledge inflected by the idiom of arrival. 

Figure 3.  In the Heart of Chinatown, San Francisco, U.S.A., c. 1892

In Fig. 3, the English caption, “In the Heart of Chinatown,” virtually emplots this arrival.  “In” is used in the sense of “in the midst of,” underscoring the picture’s energy—specifically the intensity of the light, and the bustling human and animal street traffic that moves across and up and into the deep space of the picture.  “Heart” signifies not just the implicit link between commercial activity and the essence of an American place, as in the previous anonymous picture, and not just the foregrounded space of the intersection itself, but also the action of the buggy driver, who turns into the street—and so leads the viewer imaginatively into it.  Most of all, “heart” designates an intimate, thicket-like urban ethos, whose visual sign is the alleyway.  My guess is that this is one of old Chinatown’s larger alleys, either Washington Place between Washington and Jackson Streets, or Bartlett Alley between Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue; the cant of the cross street shows that in either case we are looking north.  In contrast to the east-west streets that led to the docks (California, Sacramento and Washington Streets, Pacific Avenue), or the larger north-south streets that were throughways in the city (Stockton Street, Dupont Street—later Grant Avenue—and Kearney Street), Chinatown’s alleyways served primarily Chinatown’s own population.  Its destinations were by definition local and communal, being the place of barbershops, brothels and gambling tables.  In fact Chinatown’s network of alleyways arose to facilitate movement and to ease the neighborhood’s severe overcrowding (the result, as mentioned, of residential restrictions).  In the popular imagination, however, the alleys were the closest thing to a transplantation of a Chinese city, a symbol of the orient—the kin of a Middle Eastern souk or an Indian bazaar.  Here, interestingly, the alleyway appears without the connotations of the forbidding and the baroque that often embellished it; rather it is pictured as an open, accessible place of mercantile optimism.  Still—to return to the picture’s caption—the “Heart” metaphor begs clarification of “Chinatown” as a descriptive term, inasmuch as the photograph lacks overt cultural signifiers.  There is no Chinese text or particularly Chinese artifacts, for example, save perhaps the workaday Chinese dress (and Western hat) of a single pedestrian on the right side of the picture, his back to the camera.  As the picture has it, it is the constricted activeness of the place itself that stands for “Chinatown” as opposed to some other busy commercial area. 

If the tourist idiom delineates one strand of historical documentary photography of Chinatown—an idiom in which abrupt plenitude stands for a loose knowledge—a second discernible strand is ethnographic documentary, specifically in two forms.  The first is an overtly typecasting image whose structuring logic is the archive (as distinct from the encyclopedia), a taxonomic ordering on the basis of occupation, ethnicity or other criteria.  The manifest task of the typecast image is to govern what it shows, to generate a disciplinary identification of what is pictured.  In explicitly colonial situations elsewhere in the world, the authorizing voice behind such photographs is, not surprisingly, government; in Chinatown, where a de facto but not formalized colonial arrangement existed, the authorizing voice is the independent amateur endowed with cultural rather than institutional prerogative—the amateur whose concerns are linked to the implicit discourses of social science and racial superiority.  The best example from Chinatown is the work of Charles Weidner (Fig. 4), whose pictures of occupational types closely resemble colonial ethnographic photographs in India and Africa—though Weidner’s pictures were also circulated as postcards under his name, which effectively served as the guarantor of ethnographic authenticity.

Figure 4.  Charles Weidner, The Cobbler, San Francisco, 1900

The second variety of ethnographic photography, and in San Francisco the more influential, is associated with pictorialism, a broad movement in turn of the century photography fascinated with the controlled exploration of effect and sensuality, and the attendant emergence of the photographer as “artist.”  In contrast to regulatory ethnography, whose task is to specify and categorize Chinese people individually, pictorialist ethnography’s task is to visualize “Chineseness” itself.  Through precisely-wrought ephemeral pictures, often pivoting on (when not saturated with) easily recognized cultural indices such as lanterns and festival dress, the idea is to suffuse an impressionistic image with an imputed cultural essence.(5)  Organized around San Francisco’s Camera Club (founded in 1890), and exemplified in the work of Laura Adams Armer, though present to varying degrees in the work of many others, including Charles Weidner and Arnold Genthe (see below), the pictorialist agenda at work in Chinatown represents an aestheticism founded on a primary non-concern, if not an outright disavowal of the complex actuality of Chinese experience.(6)

A third defining strand of documentary practices in San Francisco’s Chinatown, informed by pictorialism but distinct from it, is what might be called the disquieted genre scene—the depiction of ordinary people undertaking common activities, as inflected by the idiosyncrasies of handheld photography.  Genre photography in San Francisco, as elsewhere, ranged from the palatably picturesque (and occasionally picaresque) to the wittingly and unwittingly interrogatory view of social representation from below.(7)  In San Francisco’s Chinatown, the photographic genre picture was uniquely elaborated as a specular practice elastic enough to sustain several varieties of modern urban subjectivity.  Anthony W. Lee’s compelling account of late nineteenth century photography in Chinatown marks out several such positions.(8)  There is, for example, the commercial photographer Isaiah West Taber’s declarative depictions of Chinese merchants in front of their shops—photographs that evince, in Lee’s persuasive reading, a self-conscious and even solicitous but fundamentally colonial attitude, sympathetic in its receptiveness but compatible with exclusionist views toward the Chinese.  Contrariwise there is the ambivalent work of an anonymous photographer whom Lee names the 8000 Photographer (after his catalogue number at the California Historical Society), whose unprepossessing photographs “measure the distance” between himself and his subjects.(9) 

The leading figure among the San Francisco pictorialists, and the most important photographer of the period, remains Arnold Genthe, whose street work with a small camera in the decade before the 1906 earthquake epitomizes the quickened, mobile genre picture.  Genthe is old Chinatown’s once and future photographic flâneur, its roaming outsider observing the vagaries and vicissitudes of the streets, with a loitering appetite for all manner of tactile and visual stimuli, and for unbidden, eventful circumstances—which is to say, social circumstantiality itself.  In Genthe’s picture of mid-sidewalk commerce between a chickenseller on Washington Street and his stooping customer [Fig. 5], to take one example, the entirety of the street becomes an aspect of the unresolved exchange Genthe places at the center of the picture.   Just as the chickenseller balances two squawking baskets on a stick, the photograph suspends a flurry of small interactions and attentions into a prolonged pause with no necessary dénouement:  it is not important if she buys or doesn’t buy, if he accepts her price or rejects it, if the kibbitzer beside him helps or hinders the sale, if the cobbler sitting against the wall has his thoughts on what is near at hand or on something else.  Neither a study nor a vignette nor a raking glimpse, but retaining elements of all three, the photograph partakes of the flow of everyday life seemingly for its own sake.

Figure 5.  Arnold Genthe, Washington Street below Dupont, San Francisco, c. 1897

Genthe could, of course, have practiced photographic flânerie in any part of the city, particularly in downtown areas not ethnically and racially marked.(10)  It is noteworthy that he chose to work in Chinatown, where both flânerie and representation were overtly predicated on unequal relations between Chinese and non-Chinese, and on his own apartness from much of the lifeworld around him.(11)  To my eye, Genthe’s practice is deeply infused with this unequal apartness:  it is what transforms visual dynamism into social drama, pictorial excitement into the mild danger of near contact with the social other.  This apartness also girds Genthe’s authorial disposition (the tacit stabilizing force behind the pictures), which is a liberal-minded elitism that is enticed by social difference but fundamentally condescending toward it, sensitive but immunized, adventuresome but not quite participative.  The result is an aura of engaged detachment, a sense of apollonian experiment that is quietly protective of privilege, and colored by a socially downward cast suitable to polite tastes.  In the photograph of the chickenseller, this overall downward cast appears most palpably in Genthe’s handling of space, specifically the distance he keeps from his subjects as marked by the small size of the figures, who occupy the horizontal band between the curb and the strong shadowline on the wall above them, perhaps 25%-30% of the picture’s space.  The majority of the photograph is given to describe the cobblestones of the street and the wall’s shadow.  In short, Genthe photographed across the (psychically) safe distance of the street, partaking of his subjects’ space but never really entering it. 

Though the photograph is a good example of what counts as social investigativeness for Genthe, in other ways the picture is not typical of Genthe’s oeuvre, inasmuch as he often mitigated a lurking undomesticatedness in his documentary premises, and turned—because he demanded that his pictures function as visual “report”—to symbolist simplification.  As John Kuo Wei Tchen details, a large part of free-spirited observation in Genthe’s hands is in fact a replicative search for indices of a (non-existent) cloistered Chineseness, including a strong attention for holiday and ritual events, artifacts and costumeliness, for tropes of virtue (children) and vice (gamblers), and a willingness extensively to crop and retouch pictures for the sake of (mis)leading his viewers into an encounter with an ersatz orient.(12)  

Altogether, documentary photography as it emerged in San Francisco tells a different origin story with a different mandate than the more familiar account of documentary on the East coast—one that renders the dominant Eastern narrative rather more particular.  If change was the overriding demand that transformed a photograph into a “document” in the East, in the West the demand was for distilled discovery, a type of social picturing that could signify, if not emulsify the complexity of social relations in a young frontier boom city.  If the poor and immigrant neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan occasioned the development of programmatic photography to provoke organized political response to pressing urban issues, San Francisco’s Chinatown occasioned the development of explorative, non-programmatic observation to grapple with the complexities of social difference in an urban scene at once fluid and hierarchical.  Where documentary in New York positioned social address through a rhetoric of sociopolitical urgency predicated on the dualism of the spokesperson and the voiceless subject, documentary social address in San Francisco emerged as an aspect of purposive idleness whose structuring codes are in equal measures democratic civic participation and orientalist reductivism.  In a word, the broad task—one might say, the conceit—of documentary in San Francisco was a negotiation with an unresolved, in some ways explicitly opaque urban alterity. 

What remains in abeyance in early documentary work in San Francisco’s Chinatown—on the verge of cancellation but not quite cancelled—is the perspective of the people of Chinatown themselves.  It is not that the photographs suggest two possible approaches to Chinatown’s people, an insider’s and an outsider’s, and then validate the outsider’s.  Rather the outsider’s perspective in the majority of the work in Chinatown is an assumption.  More precisely, as I have indicated, it is a spectrum of assumptions that includes rigidly predetermined views of the social other; tentative admission of the other’s autonomous subjecthood, but ultimately as an effect of the photographer’s own subjectivity; and, rarely, a self-qualifying effort to sustain an image of the social other in terms that are not entirely the photographer’s, or laid down in advance.  Neither rejected nor discredited, insiders’ perspectives are for the most part simply elided in early documentary work in Chinatown—to remain, perhaps, inferentially or accidentally present.  The upshot is that early West coast documentary practices are peculiarly non-dialectical in their various maneuvers to position the explorative (white) self in relation to the more or less hypostasized Chinese other—and so announce a lacuna in the outsiders’ self-understanding. 

The absence of dialectical picturing is, however, a perennial issue within programmatic documentary modes also.  Perhaps the emblematic example is the one enshrined in the American imagination as the very essence of the documentary form, namely the work done under the auspicies of the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, notably by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott and others—in which empathetic pictures of the poor and disempowered were made to legitimate state intervention and to create national unity.(13)  Purporting to reveal rural crisis, the empathetic aura occluded much.  In an influential analysis, Maren Stange argues that the RA/FSA/OWI archive’s humanism masked a technocratic “reform” agenda of corporatized agrarian modernization; my own sense is that this is close but not quite right—rather the archive’s humanism toward the poor masked the New Deal’s political reliance on a conservative, monied rural base that used federal intervention to cement its own power.(14)  In either case, the pictures deflect the federal government’s political abandonment of the rural poor, demonstrating that documentary empathy was (and remains) easily positioned under the sign of misfortune and not politics, without a naming of perpetrators, a critique of structural imbalances, or even a spirit of indictment.(15)   It almost goes without saying that the exigencies facing the rural poor of the 1930s have been even further obscured in the subsequent cultural trajectory of the RA/FSA/OWI archive, a trajectory that bends strongly toward undifferentiated nostalgia and patriotic pieties.(16)

The poor of San Francisco’s Chinatown, curiously, hardly figure in the visual rhetoric of 1930s government uplift, notwithstanding that Dorothea Lange, the photographer most associated with advocacy among the RA/FSA group, was based in San Francisco.(17)  The reasons for this absence in Lange’s work are not clear.  Perhaps the limiting factor was the narrative premise of her documentary vision itself, in which the afflicted were those positioned within the discrete crises of the Depression—in San Francisco, the unemployed and the destitute—which is different than responsiveness to affliction per se, much as her work abstracts affliction (through individuation) and so gives rise to this impression.  Perhaps Lange was somehow incapable of finding in Chinese Americans emblems of the topical crises she sought to address.  Or perhaps the broad, historical crises that defined so much of Chinese American experience in San Francisco were inscrutable enough to her that she could not find a place for them in her own social conscience. 

In a tellingly ambivalent set of photographs in Chinatown in 1938 [Fig. 6], Lange shows a group assembled on the sidewalk to read the news of the fall of Canton to the Japanese.  The photographs are tentative, and show just a trace of Lange’s familiar tactic of finding within the crowd an individual on whom the crowd’s feeling is projected.  Much as Genthe kept his distance, Lange’s photographs do not enter the viewer into the space of the sidewalk or of the pedestrians.  Nor do the pictures clearly ask the viewer empathetically to identify with the subject seen, except inasmuch as we recognize the crowd as hushed by the news of Canton’s suffering (the origin of many of the people of Chinatown)—that is, as victims of Japanese aggression one step removed.  To my eye, the photographs retain an overtone of wariness that shades into surveillance, as if to suggest that the people of Chinatown are benign, pacified—at least while China endures Japanese aggression. 

Figure 6.  Dorothea Lange, In front of the local paper of San Francisco's Chinatown Chinese read news of the surrender of Canton to the Japanese, 1938

The Chinese American community also does not figure in Lange’s work on social life in the Bay Area during the Second World War.(18)  Its absence is particularly noteworthy in this case, given this work’s progressive vision of the emerging Bay Area public—one that is multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural, and that affords opportunities for (or forces) new types of social arrangements and interactions.  The wartime work does not ignore Bay Area Asian communities altogether—indeed, it includes Lange’s brave reportage on the deportation of the Japanese American community following Executive Order 9066 in1942.  Whether Lange consciously or unconsciously bypassed the Chinese American community, the result is the same:  a confirmation of the community’s historically uncertain, and perhaps subaltern status among outside observers.

At this point, the complex of West coast documentary initiatives that I have described figures ambiguously in the received history of early American documentary practices—neither well remembered nor well forgotten, not quite a parallel tradition and also not merely a regional variant of the East coast paradigm.  Did the early history of documentary in San Francisco’s Chinatown seed a West coast documentary tradition?  In my view, not quite.  Certainly the difference between programmatic and non-programmatic social photography was itself not strictly a regional division.  Riis’ and Hine’s work both contain significantly non-programmatic elements.  The pictorial instability of much of Riis’ work amounted to a document only when properly tethered to a reformist discourse (whether enacted in print or dramatically performed lectures using glass slides).  This discourse is precisely what was lost when Riis was rediscovered at mid-century and his work (in the form of new, careful prints of the complete negatives by Alexander Alland) was embraced for its experimental and proto-modernist technique.  Likewise much of Hine’s work in its ethic of searching mutuality remains apart from its programmatic mandate, emblematically in the case of his Ellis Island pictures (the work that inaugurated his career), whose very premise—a prolonged, appropriately inconclusive encounter with immigrants in the charged, vulnerable place between journey and arrival, old and new lives—informs Hine’s aesthetic at the deepest levels across his career.  

Further, there were late nineteenth and early twentieth century photographers on the East coast who took their cameras into the streets for the sake of explorative observation—including Joseph Byron, Alice Austen, Jessie Talbox Beals, Charles Zoller and famously the young Paul Strand, whose penetrating, open ended street portraits effectively launched his career in the final double issue of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work in 1917.  What distinguishes early documentary work in San Francisco’s Chinatown from “candid” photography in the East and other parts of the U.S.—and the reason why “candid” is a poor descriptor for the type of documentary work that San Francisco’s Chinatown occasioned—is that Chinatown elicited a sustained set of observational practices by several photographers, what I earlier described as a distillation of social discovery, and not merely occasional (ad)ventures in urban seeing, as was more common elsewhere. 

By the 1930s, East coast documentary had fragmented into three more or less distinct (and still normative) praxes:  photojournalism, which provides codified illustrations of “news” events; what we might call documentary proper, whose mandate is to provide testimonial observations of the individual conscience; and auteurism, whose purpose is anodyne social description, neither a recording nor an interrogating but a reticent conjuring of the shared world, guided by formalist concerns.(19)  In effect, the socially tensile, oppositional visual idiom of the East coast tradition was gradually enlisted in support of pro-statist political ends, apolitical social reportage, and a great deal of sheer pictorial experiment.  By the terms of its own logic, the drift of East coast documentary from the founding imperatives of empirical certitude and moral suasion announced a crisis of meaning, and a challenge to the East coast tradition.  On the West coast, by contrast, the indeterminacy of social meaning in photography was significantly a challenge within the premises of prevailing historical West coast practices.  Or to put it differently, the explorative and individualist premises of early documentary in San Francisco’s Chinatown might be said unintentionally to prophesize—without quite prefiguring—the broader movement of American documentary by the mid-twentieth century toward non-programmatic, expressivist forms. 

In this (limited) sense, mid-century work in Chinatown by modernist photographers such as John Gutmann and Minor White extends what nineteenth century photographers in San Francisco began—namely a practice that looks at the particularities of place in terms of subjective concerns that incompletely reduce the place to a subjectivist projection.  However, the modernist approach characteristically treats the polysemy of the photograph as a specifically poetic phenomenon whose social aspects are secondary, if not incidental—lending the modernist social picture a flatter and narrower range of social meaning than its predecessors.  For example, White’s 1950 sidewalk photograph of a child and a curbside bucket of Chinese New Year narcissus cuttings [Fig. 7] curiously echoes the anonymous 1866 photograph discussed above [Fig. 2], except that White’s photograph is more myopic, situating the blurred figure not within a broad view of civic space but within a shallow, downward view that eliminates the complexity of the street.  Indeed, the photograph’s main task, as I read it, is not descriptive but symbolist:  to dwell preciously on an imputed correspondence between the material world and myth, as if to commune with latent allegory through an act of beholding.

Figure 7.  Minor White, Chinatown, San Francisco, 1950

It is, of course, a cardinal piety of modernist orthodoxy (and what is White’s self-styled shamanic modernism if not orthodox?) that a photograph should tacitly valorize the photographer’s interiority as the true subject of the picture, should turn the observable world constantly back toward that interiority, and further should universalize that interiority as a stepping-off point into a transcendent experience.  Such indulgences mean one thing on the beaches of Point Lobos, where White photographed extensively, or (lest we discount the experience of honest wonder) in the thrall of daydreaming windowsills and ritual branches.  In Chinatown, though, White’s modernism is neither universal nor transcendent.  Rather it yields a cribbed, self-absorbed social responsiveness that treats a resonant cultural symbol as something close to a fetish—a “narcissus” in another sense.

What does the history of documentary in San Francisco say about—and to—contemporary documentary practices?  Broadly, several things.

First, this history speaks to the need for a non-reductive attitude toward documentary forms.  Much as documentary has historically drifted between personal and institutional mandates, it demands the sort of reckoning with its heterogeneity that avoids damning its contradictoriness, or looking for some imputed “pure” form of documentary against which other forms are corrupted.  To take one example, the demands of activist documentary—for unimpeachable social proof and compensatory action prompted by pictures—form a vital but exceptional case of the proposition that meaningful social address should arise from a joining of the now of looking and the then of seeing in a special communicative immediacy. 

Second, it speaks to the need for a supple view of how documentary pictures communicate—against the view that asks how documentary photographs naively record the world, and the (equally instrumentalist) view that asks how they blithely do the bidding of their users.  The better standpoint, in my view, asks how specific photographs perform their tasks, how they inflect and intervene on the circulation of social meaning—sometimes at the behest of their users, and sometimes against it.  This perspective is equally skeptical of the notion that the social is something (merely) wielded through photography, and the idea that photography is an agency with its own capacity to produce the social.

Third, this history suggests the need for a deepened understanding of documentary’s predicating terms.  These predicating terms, as I have suggested, begin with the fundamentally irruptive conditions of meaning present in all photographs receptive to narrative—the  ways that what is immediate is remote, what is intact is fragmented, what is unchanging is contingent.  Documentary does not dissolve, but on the contrary, concentrates and magnifies these irruptive conditions.  Its predicating ideas are philosophic realism, the notion of a shared identity between the image and the world in which the image does not just represent but presents the real; narrative transparency, or the idea that stories are more or less legible in pictures, if not always complete; and finally authorial mediation of the camera-made image, the demand that the documentary photograph bear an aesthetic signature, a specific stylistics that discloses the world as a matter of aesthetic advantage.(20)  That we endow documentary with the capacity to sustain such multivalent (and ambitious) tasks owes to our faith in the reach of photography as a concept.(21)

As I read it, the history of photography in San Francisco’s Chinatown adds another important predicating idea:  documentary’s failures, and the slippages between its terms, sometimes speak to the social tensions, the barriers and the opacity in certain places themselves.  Documentary’s contribution, this history suggests, comes neither in the conceit of capturing the world—holding it captive in an image—nor in the conceit of aesthetic style treated as a cultic value in its own right.  Likewise documentary pictures are not particularly well suited to “telling” stories, rather to intimating how stories dwell within discrete and incompletely legible worlds.  As Chinatown’s photographic history offers it to us, documentary’s contribution lies mostly in its capacity to test of the mutability of appearances against the imagination of the actual, toward those difficult varieties of meaning that seem to exceed our grasp but not stray from us. Documentary pictures, this history suggests, offer neither truth nor lies, but trials and errors that by turns mirror and conjure, aver and equivocate.(22)  For a place like Chinatown, the documentary form is socially descriptive precisely in its indeterminacies.  “The document” arises only when we grasp the instability of documentary’s predicating terms as an active ground of irresolution on which to approach social experience in this place.

Ultimately, Chinatown’s photographic history challenges us with the suggestion that no photographs, strictly speaking, are documents.  There is no Archimedean silver deposit on paper that secures a correspondence with the-way-things-really-look, much less the-way-things-really-are.  There is no special ontologic category for photography, in which the power to broker appearances is at the same time a power to remain apart from them, and the power to picture things as would-be quiddities is at the same time a canceling of their pre-representational states.  And we cannot say that it is a property of photography that a thing should be at once stubbornly what it is in and for itself, and faithful to the purposes imposed on it.  Likewise there is no photographer whose power of insight colonizes the photographic image to the point of usurping our obligation to look into the image for ourselves.

Rather photographs become documents by virtue of the questions we ask of them.   In the case of San Francisco’s Chinatown, our task, in a nutshell, is to look at how picturing by outsiders has largely deflected its subject in ways that speak to the neighborhood’s opacities, how Chinatown has resisted acquisitive observation of many sorts, and how this resistance—which perhaps only outsiders could receive—reflects both the resilience and the vulnerability of the neighborhood within the city.

In Chinatown, the photograph as document is historically not a resolution but a proclamation of the impulses, aims and oscillations that inform it.  As such, Chinatown’s photographic history—so replete with outsiders’ curiosity, their alternately peremptory and halting visions—is both unique and startlingly near the defining paradoxes of the documentary urge.


1.  In a 1909 lecture to the National Child Labor Committee, Hine famously declared that “the great social peril is darkness and ignorance… light is required.  Light!  Light in floods… in this campaign for light we have for our advance agent the light writer—the photograph.”  See Daile Kaplan, Lewis Hine in Europe, The Lost Photographs, New York, Abbeville, 1988, p. 41.

2.  An indispensable critique of Riis remains Sally Stein’s “Making Connections with the Camera:  Photography and Social Mobility in the Career of Jacob Riis”, Afterimage, May 1983, though a careful look at Riis reveals that he worked far more collaboratively and consentually than Stein claims.  For a critique of the ways that Riis’ photographs and also statistical “evidence” problematize rather than clarify the notion of social “fact,” see Cindy Weinstein, “How Many Others are There in the Other Half?  Jacob Riis and the Tenement Population,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Vol. 24 (2), 2002, pp. 195-216. 

On the issue of political instrumentality in early documentary work, Alan Trachtenberg questions whether social action was even the clear endpoint of Hine’s project:  “…Hine's pictures, like the [Pittsburgh] Survey itself, do not aim to shock the viewer into rebellion, or to move him to a condemnation of a Dantean system, but to persuade the viewer that the full picture, the complete scene, includes contradictory evidence.  Such facts as crippled workers, crowded one-room dwellings, dirty streets—and with it all, the strength and worthiness radiant in the faces of workers—prove that something is wrong.  The challenge for the viewer is to reconcile the opposing images:  industrial power and human waste.” See Trachtenberg's “Ever—the Human Document,” in Walter and Naomi Rosenblum and Alan Trachtenberg’s, America & Lewis Hine, New York, Aperture, 1977, p. 127.  See also Trachtenberg's discussion of Hine and the formative period of documentary photograpy in “Camera Work/Social Work,” in Reading American Photographs, New York, Hill and Wang, 1989, pp. 164-230.

3.  See Anthony W. Lee, Picturing Chinatown, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001, chapter 2, “Picturesque Chinatown.”

4.  See Peter Bacon Hales, “American Views,” in Martha A. Sandweiss, ed., Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum, 1991, pp. 249-252.

5.  The monumental work of Edward S. Curtis on North American Indians, both catalogical and romantic, is effectively a hybrid of these two types of ethnographic picturing.  Chinatown did not give rise to any photographic effort even remotely as ambitious.  If, as many have observed, Curtis’ work is premised on the already-accomplished cultural conquest of his subject—its near vanishedness—the Chinese were by contrast resolutely present, culturally alive, organized and unconquered, though severely disadvantaged.

6.  See Anthony W. Lee, Picturing Chinatown, op cit, p. 129.

7.  Genre photography inherited a secondary status in relation to “high” photographic forms such as portraiture and landscape, much as genre painting occupied a low rank by comparison to religious and history painting.  Both the tendency toward the picturesque and toward the interrogatory in the genre form may be seen as responses to this status—a conservative response in the case of the former, a radical response in the latter case.

8.  The following discussion is indebted to Anthony W. Lee’s groundbreaking work in Picturing Chinatown, op cit, Chapter 3, “Photography on the Streets.”

9.  Additionally Lee describes the work of Louis Stellman, who photographed in Chinatown for a decade after the 1906 earthquake, first attempting to make pictorialist commitments do reportorial work, and gradually developing an optimistic “straight” practice that crosses journalism and a non-precious street aesthetic.  See Anthony W. Lee, ibid., pp. 181-192.

10.  I am using “ethnic” to designate that aspect social difference that is and was pluralistic, and “racial” for the hierarchical aspect.  Historically “race” is a term whose purpose is not to describe biological difference, but to naturalize hierarchical social difference using the language of biology.   The history of the term’s use bears this out plainly; hence during the colonial period, the English considered the Irish a different race, much as Nazis considered Jews racially distinct.  While the Irish and the Jews are no longer considered races, now as a century ago the Chinese remain a race in the dominant American consciousness—although one that has acquired the attribute of ethnicity, as it were.

11.  See Anthony W. Lee, Picturing Chinatown, op cit, p. 67.

12.  See John Kuo Wei Tchen, Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown, op cit, pp. 10-18 and pp. 42-59.

13.  See, for example, Maren Stange, “Documentary Photography in American Social Reform Movements:  The FSA Project and Its Predecessors,” in Multiple Views, ed. Daniel P. Younger, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1991, p. 213.

14.  See Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life, Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1989, chapter 3.

15.  In this connection, Richard Hofstadter suggests that New Deal “reform” in any case was never so much a matter of sharing, redistributing or restoring lost prosperity as a matter of creating faith in the corrective organization—“managing an economy in such a way as to restore prosperity is above all a problem of organization.”  See Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, New York, Vintage, 1955, p. 306 ff. 

16.  On the issue of loss of specificity, see Martha Rosler’s notion of two “moments” of the documentary image, an “immediate, instrumental” moment and an “aesthetic-historical” moment, in “In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography),” in Decoys and Disruptions, Selected Writings, 1975-2001, pp. 185-186.  Rosler is right to say that a loss of topicality and an enhancement of the (merely) aesthetic aspects of photographs is one eventuality of the documentary picture, but not the only one.  As I have suggested, one of documentary’s conceits is that it may sustain what Rosler terms the “dialectical relation between political and formal meaning” beyond its historical moment, in effect prolonging topicality and enabling a historical dialectic in which history is not consigned to history, and the past remains relevant precisely because it is received as not merely anterior to now.  The implication is that a certain form of “the aesthetic” is the prevailing domain of the political.  In light of post-structural analysis, Rosler’s two moments might better be put as the moment in which the documentary image is understood to manifest the social and political world, and the moment in which it is understood to produce it.  In contrast to the documentary photograph’s historic role as social fact, in its performance as “social text,” the second moment may coincide with the first.  However, to manifest the social and political world, as I hope to show in my own photographs, is not necessarily to recuperate it.

17.  The following discussion extends and qualifies a set of remarks that opens Anthony W. Lee’s book.  See Anthony W. Lee, Picturing Chinatown, op cit, p. 4.

18.  See Charles Wollenberg, Photographing the Second Gold Rush:  Dorothea Lange and the Bay Area at War, 1941-1945, Berkeley, Calif., Heyday Books, 1995.  A single photograph of two Chinese workers, probably made on a ferry, appears on p. 34, with the uncredited caption, “The wartime labor shortage produced new jobs for Chinese Americans, long victims of employment discrimination.”

19.  Often these elements combine in the work of a single photographer.  W. Eugene Smith’s oeuvre, for example, is documentary and auteurist in equal measure, as is Walker Evans’, though the character of the auteurism is different—effusive and passionate in the case of Smith, austere and apollonian in Evans’ case.  Robert Frank and Paul Strand likewise form an (unpredictably) illustrative pair—both partisan modernists whose work is by turns reportorial and symbolist, both committed to the image sequence, but stylistically and temperamentally divergent—Frank’s work being gestural and melancholic, Strand’s being iconic and affirmative, though retaining an understated despondency.

20.  Crucially, it is frequently photographs themselves that interrogate the cultural work given to “photography” to do, and also the intentions we attribute to certain photographers.  It is the complexities of photographs themselves that prick critical awareness, move blood into sclerotic conceptions of testimony, productively denaturalize the real without destroying it as a term of cultural viability, and elaborate photographers’ accomplishments and failures independent of their own intentions.

21.  I would elaborate this faith as an adaptive desire for the combined power of chemistry, optics, mechanics and (not least) perpetual innocence as these might confer on some representations the remarkable power to claim on the world itself, as if on its own terms.  Though I am in general skeptical of such faith, I am not so willing to discount Nathan Lerner’s well known observation that without innocence, a photographer is no more than a technician.  What sort of innocence would this be?  Perhaps we might call it an innocence born of open-eyed faithlessness, an innocence not counterposed to experience, but that experience itself has drained of naïveté.

22.  It is for the same reason that documentary’s performance as media and art is paradoxical.  As art, documentary is charged with imagining the social in such a way that its ambiguities amount to plausible deniability toward both its social and imaginative aspects, as needed.  And as (liberal-democratic) media, documentary’s precisely equivocal task is to blur the distinction between what galvanizes and what placates social conscience, what engages and what dramatizes social life, what searches out truth and what searches out habitable niches in the marketplace of concern.