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It sometimes seems that what the USA has forged its identity through photographs. Of course, the history is much longer and more complicated than the photographic age, what we might consider to be the last 150 years, but the icons of the country seems to be captured in photographs. From the revolutionary photographs of Matthew Brady documenting the American Civil War, through the dust bowl of Dorothea Lang, to the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, to the still moment of 9/11 the image is photographic, not painterly.
Mick Gidley has produced a book of significant interest that considers the history and context of seminal image-fixing photographs in the national and cultural identity of the USA. Some are very familiar, some less so, but all speak to a cultural moment at which something seemed to shift, or something transformed. Either way, the USA was never quite the same again and the moment is captured.
The book is organized around four themes: technologies, histories, documents and emblems. Each section is an essay with photographs some of which are well-known and iconic, others almost private. Some are deliberate artistic statements, some are flat documents. Some are posed, some are candid. Some are resonant of their age, some are now tinged with irony. However, all are emblematic of a county seeking and exploring its cultural identity.
Gidley recognizes that the meanings of the images are both inferred and implied, and are not historically stable or consistent. But that is to a great extent what makes them such valuable artifacts.
In the chapter in which he considers the technologies of photography, Gidley notes the changes from the stiff portraits of the mid-nineteenth century (obviously so given the need for long exposures) and the formality of the sitting through to the liberation of the Polaroid instant picture, photo-booths and now digital cameras which can take a thousand photographs, view them immediately and dispose of them just as fast. The idea that a photograph is something to be taken with care, prepared for and even somewhat expensive structured its social use and value just as much as a fun snap taken on a whim and circulated electronically to a hundred different people. He also notes how photography has spanned art and science and uses the examples of Eadwaerd Muybridge and the battery of cameras he set up to dissect the mechanics of motion or Harold Edgerton's ultra-high speed shots of bullets flying through playing cards, as ways in which photographs which are made possible by high-level science change everyday perceptions. We know now that a horse lifts all its hoofs off the ground when galloping, we know what a drop in a pool of water looks like when it hits.
The second chapter concerns itself with histories and much of the discussion is related to the use of photography in creating what we believe our history to be -- or how we would wish it. We see Abraham Lincoln standing tall, with his hand resting on a small pile of books while he looks balefully out at the audience (and photographer) as though he rather wishes it was over. And we also see a snap of a National Guard from Mississippi sternly watching a student demonstration. Posed and unposed, both can be read for the symbolism they suggest. Both are identity-making images.
The third chapter which deals with documents and is subtitled "How the other half lives". Much of it is concerned with the unseen sections of society: street children, slum-dwellers, factory girls, even 'retarded children' (one of Lewis Hines's series). But while Gidney seeks to understand the documentation of the underclasses, he also looks at moments that sear themselves into a collective memory. Curiously, the two most prominent are both images of violence and conflict: the Larry Burrows photograph of a bandaged, black soldier in Vietnam, naked to the waist and reaching out to his already dead comrade who lies covered in mud and sprawled on the ground; and a night shot of Ground Zero, eerily spotlit and somehow looking like an art installation.
The final chapter looks at emblems, and is in some ways the most interpretive. There are natural sites -- great national parks, mountains and geysers, there are the famous -- Mark Twain in repose, and there are the constructed and the deconconstructed -- the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima (or more accurately a photograph of the statue of the photograph that may or may not have been posed). However, each is carefully chosen for the emotional impact it is designed to have on the viewer, and in that way Gidney is considering, as the title of the book suggests, photography and the USA, not photography in the USA.
Gidney has produced a fascinating, if small and selective, book. It has the feel of illustrated essays rather than an all-encompassing history. It can be read and re-read b y serious scholars and an interested general public with equal ease. It is a book that will be picked up again and again, and always show something new -- because the reader is engaged in the same project, understanding ourselves.
© 2012 Mark Welch
Mark Welch, Ph.D., British Columbia, 2011.