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America at HomeReview - America at Home
A Close-Up Look at How We Live
by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt
Running Press, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Jun 10th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 24)

Sponsored by Ikea®, America at Home is a collection of photographs of people all across the United States.  The book has 240 pages, with one or more picture per page, and a short paragraph of text explaining each image.  The photography is attractive  and diverse.  It shows the rich, the middle class, and the homeless.  It shows people in middle America, Manhattan, San Francisco, Louisiana, and Vermont.  We see babies, children and teens, adults and the elderly, people of different races, different religions, different sexualities, different abilities, and different lifestyles.  The pictures have a fundamentally positive and humanistic outlook, making people look happy, sincere, excited, diligent, invested in their lives, and beautiful.  It's a style of photography that is familiar in magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and a narrative that you will often see in photomontages about people's struggles on the Oprah TV show.  The style has the astonishing ability to be simultaneously interesting and bland.  It is also striking that there is such uniformity in style even though many different photographers contributed.

This collection is interesting because it highlights many of the distinctive features of the USA.  A great many of the of the pictures feature cute pets or children, or both.  Many of the pictures are posed, and even the ones that look more spontaneous have been artfully framed and carefully lit.  Even the homeless people look content with their lot: in San Diego, Anthony Robinson and Belinda Darby live on the street together, and she is pregnant, but he is able to watch a DVD on a portable player at night.  Some people who are being evicted from their homes because they can't pay their mortgages, but we only get a glimpse of their feelings, and the focus is more on the people doing the evicting. America at Home shows a rainbow coalition of people who are committed to the values of home and hard work.  There's no doubting the attraction of the portrayal, and it is fine, even though it does all feel a little glossy and too rosy; it has the aura of an advertisement for America.

There is one image in the whole book that sticks out for me.  In Manhattan, Kansas, Laura Cummings has a mean with her two young daughters, and sat at the table is a life-size, cardboard cutout picture of her husband, Major Brent Cummings, who is serving in Iraq, placed in his seat at the table.  The small paragraph calls it a "Flat Daddy image."  The situation looks weird, and yet it also feels real in a way that most of the other images do not.

So this is a strong collection for what it is, and it is certainly a pleasure to browse through.  Yet, despite its diversity, it leaves out a great deal: it shows no barracks, prisons, assisted living facilities, long term mental hospitals, or hospices, where many Americans live.  It's a resolutely optimistic outlook at a time when American optimism is taking a battering. 

Link: America at Home website.

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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