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Economies of Valuation and Desire: How New Deal Photography Made the Amish Modern


"Economies of Valuation and Desire: How New Deal Photography Made the Amish Modern" connects two substantial bodies of scholarship: the visual culture of the New Deal, and twentieth-century visual and literary representations of religious sub-cultures in the United States. Its primary objectives are two-fold. First, it provides an alternative model for the Great Depression as a historical narrative and popular concept in the American imagination. The images at the center of my dissertation propose a counter-narrative to those typically offered, which describe great waves of migration across the landscape - narratives of Okies, and other de-territorialized American identities moving through shifting topographies of loss and renewal. In contrast, the earliest group of photographs to depict consenting Amish subjects in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania make visible an American community's firm rootedness to a particular place, and moreover, the cost of that endurance to other citizens. Second, the project contributes to the field of Anabaptist Studies a critical assessment of twentieth-century photographs of the photography-averse Amish, a subject that has yet to receive consideration in any field. Since they arose as a distinct group within the Amish Church in 1865, the Old Order have exercised serious proscriptions against photography as both act and object. Yet images of Amish individuals have proliferated in American visual culture since the early twentieth century and contribute to our collective idea of the community as insular, old-fashioned, and curiously benign. A particular set of New Deal photographs act as a pivot point in a history of picturing the Old Order - they are paradoxical images because they present the Anabaptist community as nearly extinct on the periphery of the modern world, yet also a viable threat to central tenets of multiple modernisms. Furthermore, it is precisely the Old Order's particular objections to photography that constitute some of the most serious challenges to established ideas of Modernism.

"Economies of Valuation and Desire" considers photographs by Irving Rusinow taken for the American Farm Community Study, a sociological research endeavor directed by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics from 1938 to 1942. As the Bureau's Head Field Photographer, the little-known Rusinow replaced Dorothea Lange, who left in 1940 to pursue work on a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Study was comprised of six rural communities, including the Lancaster Amish, that the Bureau's team of sociologists selected as representative of the nation's rural inhabitants. In 1941, Rusinow produced about 1,000 photographs of these communities; however, only 76 of them were published with the Study's technical reports between 1942 and 1945. The project investigates a small portion of the photographer's (published and unpublished) images within the context of the Study's ultimate objective: to structure the six communities into a legible "continuum of stability and instability" and in the process, uncover cultural, environmental, and agricultural variables that led to a community's economic success or failure. The Community Study was in the service of the Bureau's primary program, Federal-County Land-Use Planning; the second half of the chapter considers the possibilities of Rusinow's photographs for this larger program. Land-Use Planning facilitated direct dialogue between all agricultural stakeholders in order to propose and enact policy change. Bureau-organized municipal meetings brought together farmers, university agriculture extension agents, social scientists, Washington bureaucrats, and farm union representatives who collaborated to literally redraw maps of local topographies as the first step towards higher agricultural profits and more economically resilient communities. Land-Use Planning was tasked with inculcating big business methods into agriculture, but doing so with a grassroots democratic approach that required "inside" information about each of the communities in question. To this end, Rusinow's camera was the program's fundamental research tool, freely oscillating between ethnographic and anthropological looking at (O)ther Americans. His photographs substantially reframe established narratives about the New Deal; they muddy (or unexpectedly illuminate) Roy Stryker's assertion that the most famous government photography project, enabled by the Farm Security Administration, was going to "introduce America to Americans." I argue that Land-Use Planning photography was deployed as a mode of surveillance in the countryside, a tool for social gardening with which the vulnerabilities of peripheral populations could be identified, ordered, and "corrected."

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