American Photography and the American Dream

American Photography and the American Dream

American Photography and the American Dream

American Photography and the American Dream


James Guimond's powerful study reveals how documentary photographers have expressed or contested the idea of the American Dream throughout the twentieth century. In Guimond's formulation issues like growth, equality, and national identity came under the rubric of the Dream as it has been used to measure how well the nation is living up to its social and political ideals.

A pathbreaking book, American Photography and the American Dream examines the most important photographers and developments in the documentary genre during this century. It encompasses the reform-era images of Francis Benjamin Johnston and Lewis Hine; the work of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange during both the 1930s and 1940s after the FSA photography unit broke up; the American-Way-of-Life pictures published by Life, Look, and the United States Information Agency during the 1940s and 1950s; the iconoclastic images of William Klein, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank; and the work of four photographers of the 1970s and 1980s: Bill Owens, Chauncey Hare, Susan Meiselas, and Michael Williamson.

Guimond pays close attention to the specific historical circumstances in which the pictures were made, to the roles the photographers played in making their images, to their intentions, stated and unstated, and to the original contexts in which the images were published or exhibited. These images, he shows, are not merely pictures on museum walls but revelations that can help us understand how we as Americans have seen ourselves, one another, and the world around us.


The emergence of the photograph as an object of study surely strikes one of the distinctive notes in contemporary cultural studies: the photograph not only newly discovered in its plentitude of cultural and ideological implication but also as a cardinal site of cultural conflict, of contests over interpretation and meaning and over the social power of images to control not only perceptions across the fines of class and gender and ethnic identity but the perception of reality itself. The first discovery--difficult to date exactly but not unrelated to the invention of an idea of a socially combative "documentary" photography in Europe and America in the 1920s and 1930s--was simply that photographs do in fact "mean," that the image worlds they project also declaim or insinuate ideas about that world, the "reality" constructed by and as the photographic image-- and that such meanings possess unfathomed public power.

From this uncovering of the arbitrary world-making work of the photograph followed another powerful insight: that photographic reality is never absolute, never a merely automatic or mechanical reflex, never free of local and immediate contingencies of presentation (where and how the viewer encounters and engages with the image)--always, in short, a "reality" overdetermined by a convergence of factors of extraordinary richness to the cultural analyst. These factors--the photographic apparatus and format, the photographer's choices and what can be deduced from them as conceptual intentions, the intertextuality of pictures' echoing and revising and canceling each other across a seemingly horizonless terrain of image exchange, the locus and mode of presentation and re-presentation, formal critical reception and canonization, informal popular reception--are perhaps finally impossible to retrieve and process and understand, yet just as impossible to avoid trying, if we seriously wish to understand photographs as the entangled historical data of ideology and culture they are.

James Guimond American Photography and the American Dream . . .

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