READING AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS: Images as History from Matthew Brady to Walker Evans by Alan Traehtenberg

READING AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS: Images as History from Matthew Brady to Walker Evans

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No one can accuse Trachtenberg (American Studies and English/Yale) of shying away from large themes. In The Incorporation of America (1982), he attempted nothing less than a synthesis of ""the effects of the corporate system on culture, on values and out. looks, on the 'way of life'"" from the end of the Civil War to the early 1890's. Now, he turns his attention to analyzing the works of American photographers from the 1850's to the 1930's, not so much as esthetic objects, but as expressions of the nation's philosophical, political, social, and economic thought. There is a danger lurking in one.volume projects of this magnitude--the tendency to be superficial and overly general. It is a danger that the author often fails prey to. For example, Trachtenberg tries to show that Matthew Brady's works and those of such Civil War photographers as Alexander Gardner and George Barnard opposed the prevalent romanticized view of war as an ennobling experience. He links these photographs to the work of Stephen Crane and Herman Melville in their uncompromising depictions of the horros of the battlefield--but then fails to draw specific parallels. Likewise, when he turns to the works of Timothy O'Sullivan, who depicted the West during the nation's expansionist period, he emphasizes the links between O'Sullivan's works, the commercial interests of the mine operators, and the government. Again, however, the theme is undeveloped and, more importantly, Trachtenberg doesn't establish convincingly just why the photographer, especially since he was in the employ of the government or the mining interests, should have felt obligated to act as moralist and social critic. Trachtenberg seems on surer ground, however, when he approaches the present. His analysis of the shortcomings of Alfred Stieglitz's ""art photography"" is persuasive, as he compares Stieglitz to the Imagists Pound and Doolittle. Even here, though, his point that the sources of ""art photography"" can be found in the consumer values of the rising middle class needs evidential buttressing. The most successful section of the work concerns Walker Evans' ""American Photographs."" In analyzing these Depression-era works, Trachtenberg exhibits a depth and organization that are for the most part missing in the earlier pages. The inclusion of nearly 100 photographs may flesh out the text, but these illustrations were not seen.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux