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Picturing America

Photography and the Sense of Place

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Edited by Kerstin Schmidt and Julia Isabel Faisst

Picturing America: Photography and the Sense of Place argues that photography is a prevalent practice of making American places. Its collected essays epitomize not only how pictures situate us in a specific place, but also how they create a sense of such mutable place-worlds. Understanding photographs as prime sites of knowledge production and advocates of socio-political transformations, a transnational set of scholars reveals how images enact both our perception and conception of American environments. They investigate the power photography yields in shaping our ideas of self, nation, and empire, of private and public space, through urban, landscape, wasteland and portrait photography. The volume radically reconfigures how pictures alter the development of American places in the past, present, and future.
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Julia Faisst

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This essay investigates how climate change photographer and multimedia artist Mary Mattingly captures the dramatic impact humans exert on the environment during the Anthropocene. Its focus lies on her eco-critical “nomadographies,” in which she depicts a nomadic state of life in a hazardous environment. In her work, the supposedly “natural” risks that force people out of their homes on a global scale, and leave them homeless, have already run their course. As this essay demonstrates, the post-civilization ecosystems Mattingly creates and then interprets via photography perform practices of living in an increasingly toxic world. At the same time, her nomadographies are understood as an imaginary search for making these worn-out places habitable once more. To show the potential for migration in future conditions, Mattingly populates them with survivors. If homes can no longer be inhabited in one stationary place, her work suggests, they can likely be worn—hugged closer to one’s body.

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Miles Orvell

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This essay explores the way photography has been used in the late twentieth/twenty-first centuries as a documentary medium that shows us how our industrial and urban landscapes have changed and carries an implicit moral imperative as well. I focus on three photographers (Camilo José Vergara, Edward Burtynsky, and David T. Hanson) who represent three different approaches— historical, epic, and survey. The broader theoretical questions underlying the essay are two: Does specificity of place matter in the depiction of symbolic space? And—Can a photograph deny its own moral purpose and intention by virtue of its aesthetic power? Despite the ambiguities inherent in photography, I argue that the camera occupies a central place in contemporary culture by allowing us to answer key questions relevant to the problem of sustainable landscapes, questions about power and powerlessness.

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Katharina Fackler

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This chapter analyzes how the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1968 photobookThe Poor People’s Campaign : A Photographic Journal articulated a radical visual critique of the dominant socio-spatial order. It theorizes the protest photograph as a virtual stage for protesting bodies which can visually enact dissent and open up alternative spatialities. The chapter shows how the sclc used photography to stage the Poor People’s Campaign as a challenge to the geographic marginalization and material dispossession of poor people in the United States. By portrayingU.S. power as founded on racially motivated spatial and social injustice, it cautioned against the global Cold War ascendancy of democratic capitalism. Yet, as it imagined a heterotopic space in which poor people claim land and their right to the city, the sclc also struggled to accommodate the campaign’s multiplicity of gendered and racialized perspectives within its (photographic) frame of social and spatial justice.

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Kerstin Schmidt

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This essay looks at the ways in which the still powerful allure of documentary photography to serve as proof and authentic documentation has been called into question by the photographic practice of Stan Douglas and James Casebere. Douglas’s reconstructed settings in his seriesDisco Angola and Casebere’s miniature constructs of New England landscapes or his easily recognizable uncanny interiors of famous cultural places such as Monticello or Sing Sing penitentiary have intricately subverted documentary photography’s role in the representation of the places we live in. I will show how documentary photography’s evidentiary power has been undermined by the openly fictitious nature of Douglas’s and Casebere’s images, making us rethink the possibilities of the documentation, perception as well as representation of place in photography. Instead of allegedly photographing reality, these images of places evoke only shifting, evasive relations to the real, that is to the places of the world that we can only conceive of in fugitive images.

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Bettina Lockemann

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When photographers pick historical topics for their work they have to deal with the problem of invisibility as past events may not have left visible traces to work with. The Holocaust is such an event that challenges photographers to create conceptual approaches in order to handle this complex topic. The paper discusses the connection between place and photography—created through the photographer’s presence on location linking invisible past events to current visualities. It investigates two photographic artworks of Holocaust postmemory: Helmbrechts Walk by Susan Silas and Plan by Bettina Lockemann and Elisabeth Neudörfl. Both projects use artistic documentary photography to operate with the gap between the committed crimes and the presence of the crime scenes today. The paper discusses the index as a sign that subverts the notion of meaning, thus contesting the photograph as a representation of the world depicted.

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Rachel McLean Sailor

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The photographic style of pictorialism in the United States is most often associated with the Photo-Secession of the Stieglitz circle that existed from the late nineteenth through the first decade of the twentieth century. In recent years, however, scholars have shown that pictorialism was a more widespread and long-lived aesthetic that was broadly practiced across America until at least the end of World War Two. This essay argues that much of that populist, pictorial expression was driven by the era’s attending interest in political and cultural regionalism. The American West was a particularly important region for pictorialists as they recognized and engaged the formidable photographic heritage that began almost immediately with the invention of the medium and the Euro-American migration west. Not only was western landscape pictorialism a regionalist expression in the interwar years, it carried with it the legacy of frontier era, as well.

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Emily Setina

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Though he dismissed the idea of “artistic” photography, Henry James chose a photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, to illustrate his collected works. Coburn’s twenty-four frontispieces for the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James (1907–09) depict scenes from James’s personal history and the worlds of his fiction. Their production required a complicated form of authorship shared between the photographer and the novelist, both artists and their urban subjects, and James’s past and present artistic visions. In his Preface to The Golden Bowl, James drew on his experience with Coburn to theorize fiction’s relation to place and to depict textual revision, too, in spatial and photographic terms, as a process that unites active seeking and passive registration. This literary vision resonates with Coburn’s pictorialist accounts of photographing the modern city. It also extends James’s enduring interests in the interchange between fiction and the visible, photographable world, especially the city and especially London, and between the accidents and masteries involved in any work or life.

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David M. Lubin

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Long admired for its formal brilliance, Paul Strand’s luminous photographWall Street (1915) is a landmark of early modernism. Yet its relevance to the artist’s vehement opposition to American involvement in the First World War has largely been ignored. This essay investigates the social-historical context of Wall Street and a handful of other striking images by Strand and his contemporaries as the war abroad threatened to engulf the homeland. In keeping with the tenets of early twentieth-century realism, Strand’s images are place-specific, not generalized or generic. Wall Street, it is true, comments acerbically on capitalism in general, but it does so by alluding specifically to the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan bank, which had a major financial stake in the outcome of the Great War. Looking at Strand’s WWI-era photography in light of other place-specific visual artifacts of the day by the likes of Childe Hassam, Edward Steichen, Ernest Brooks, and Lewis Hine, we can better understand how his photography staked out a leftist position in the heated political debates of the day.

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Shamoon Zamir

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This essay examines the relationship of self and place in Lee Friedlander’s 1970 photobookSelf Portrait. Rather than an affirmation of identity, Friedlander’s book turns out to be a dramatization of the shadowy dissolution of the self, and its visualization of the American urban landscape as a sort of no place opens on to surprising engagements with a very national sense of place and history. Friedlander’s Self Portrait proposes a changed relationship between self and place through a visual syntax that challenges legibility.