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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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Joseph Imorde

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Today everybody seems to be accustomed to a certain lack of understanding. What is not understood when looking at the big picture can be substituted by generating sense out of small things and images. These things are collected to allow for different simple and pleasant narratives that can banish feared alienation by creating notions of “home.” Cheap cameras (Kodak) became a widespread commodity around 1900 because they made the recording of personal moments an easy task. The stereotypical images of happy families in tidy homes soon carried a political agenda, because they didn’t reproduce reality, they instead recycled clichés. In contrast to the efforts of an artistic avant-garde that championed progress and innovation, the visual culture of private spheres constituted itself mainly through the longing for tradition and conservatism. To dwell in an accumulation of—what I would like to call—re-collectables entails the negation of the attempt to understand and qualify a changing world “out there.”

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Mitchell Schwarzer

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During its history of almost two centuries photography has been typically analyzed as an art and technology of representation, where one thing, the photograph, stands in for another, the scene captured on a flat medium like paper. This article investigates a parallel development to photographic representation: a set of moments over much of the discipline’s history where photographs have been organized within technological systems of conveyance and presentation; in short, where photographs participate within various media infrastructures. Consisting of halftones in the late nineteenth century, wirephotos around the mid-twentieth century and, finally, smart phones coupled with photo-sharing websites and applications in the early twenty-first century, photographs have taken key roles as a visual currency within the mass (and later) social media. Like other infrastructural systems, photographs have fostered the astounding artificial environments of modern society, situations where a given place and its human interactions are augmented and transformed by goods, people or, in this case, visual imagery from elsewhere.

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Michael Wutz

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This essay offers a media-technological reading of photography in Lahiri’s work, centering broadly on The Namesake (2003). (1) Through the lens of photography, Lahiri re-exposes the power differential between men and women. If trigger-happy males zoom in on female bodies, or any other subject, from behind the viewfinder, they not only assert their traditional agency through a technology of representation; they also reduce women to passive statu(e)s and the object of the male gaze, thus re-inscribing an age-old power dichotomy and bringing it up to date. Similarly, as Lahiri’s Indian immigrants record, with camera in hand, their newfound life in the West, they also return to their country of origin as tourists, where snapshots of oddly-estranged environments give them a sense of (nostalgic) cultural grounding. (2) While ancestral portraits have served numerous cultures as a placeholder for the deceased, the Hindu practice of burning the body, and the subsequent dispersal of the ash, invests photographic verisimilitude with greater significance than in the West. Yet, if photography can be commemorative in a visual sense, words occupy a different value on the spectrum of recall and representation, often filling the gap where images and photographs fail.

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Eric J. Sandeen

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The dislocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast during the first part of 1942 was a spectacular World War Two event. More than 120,000 people were forcibly removed to ten relocation centers in the interior west in the name of national security. Photographers documented this prolonged event. Dorothea Lange followed the act of removal; she and Ansel Adams visited the largest of these domestic concentration camps, Manzanar. The War Relocation Authority enlisted these images into wartime patriotism. Another government agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, depicted everyday life in the camps on Bureau land, employing a view of settlement embedded in American ideology. Both these agencies tried to contain contradictions: that an act of patriotism masked a violation of basic constitutional rights and that pioneer settlement could be engaged in from west to east. This essay explores these images and their contradictory messages, concentrating on Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center.

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Kerstin Schmidt and Julia Faisst

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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.

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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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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.