- American Photography: A Century of Images (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 1, March, 2000
- pp. 74-75
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Masteller | American Photography: A Century of Images Richard N. Masteller Whitman College email@example.com American Photography: A Century of Images PBS, 13 October 1999 (A production of KTCA/Twin Cities PublicTelevision, in association with Middlemarch Films. Companion book ofthe same title byVicki Goldberg and Robert Silberman.) It is old news that in recent years photographs hitherto deemed canonical in the history ofthe medium defined as a fine art have been pitted against more ubiquitous forms—vernacular or amateur photography, journalistic photography, and advertising photography. Scholars of these latter forms argue that the array ofweddings and vacations and holiday celebraIn the best work, this binary opposition collapses: Alan Trachtenberg's ReadingAmerican Photographs, Peter Hales' Silver Cities: The Photography ofAmerican Urbanization, 1839-1915, or his William HenryJackson and the Transformation ofthe American Landscape demonstrate that a fine eye and meticulous scholarship facilitate provocative cultural questions . But such models ofcritical thinking and careful analysis are difficult to replicate on television for an evening's entertainment . Another way beyond the binary impasse is to open the door to all comers: one moment celebrate Alfred Stieglitz; the next, show Edward Steichen selling Ronson cigarette lighters; then, show high-speed photographs ofbullets piercing apples; follow these with amateur snapshots ofa summer vacation. As with some excellent, recent traveling exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues, such as An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital (based on the rich corporate collection Keith Davis has assembled as Director of the Fine Arts Program at Hallmark Cards) or American Photographs: The First Century, curated by Merry Foresta at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art, the PBS series American Photography: A Century of Images adopts this catholic strategy. It gives us, in effect, closeup andwide angle, pinhole andpanorama, the straight photographic vision ofPaul Strand in the 1920s anddigital manipulations ofpolice investigators searching for missing children in the 1990s. Ranging in three hours over the last one hundred years of American photographic history, American Photography:A CenturyofImages dips into photography as art, as history, as advertising, as journalism, as politics, as witness to the truth, as decoy for reality. We glimpse the chestnuts: Dorothea Lange's MigrantMother, Joe Rosenthal's Raising ofthe FlagatIwo Jima. The images ofAuschwitz lead to Steichen's The Familyof Man exhibition in 1955. We are reminded how public opinion about Vietnam depended so significantly on the accumulating visual archive, a body count more telling than the numbers issued in the official communiqués of our armed forces: here, again, are Malcolm Browne's image ofthe Buddhist monk Quang Duo immolating himself; Eddie Adams' ofPolice Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing a Vietcong suspect on the streets ofSaigon; Nick Ut's of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese girl, napalmed, running toward the camera; and Ron Haeberle's of the My Lai massacre. But spinning before our eyes in addition to these icons are also snapshots from family albums, fashion and celebrity photographs from several decades, photo booth portraits from amusement parks, and advertising images of forks and spoons, hand creams and brassieres. We are told near the end of the three hours that Americans now take some forty-six million photographs each year. The series clearly demonstrates, ifwe need such a demonstration , that we are indeed awash in an image world. Attempting to impose some order on this chaos of images, the PBS series breaks into three segments: "The Developing Image, 1900-34"; "The Photographic Age, 193559 "; and "Photography Transformed, 1960-1999." Vignettes 74 I Film & History Regular Feature | Film Reviews within each segment highlight particular photographs, events, or inventions. The first segment sets 1900 as the key date, for it was then that Eastman Kodak's one-dollar Brownie camera put photography in the hands of the masses ofAmericans. This segment also glances at photo postcards, at the work of pictorialists reproduced in Stieglitz's Camera Work, at the suppressed photographs ofWorld War I casualties, at the "composograph"—the crude photomontage invented to spur sales of the sensationalistic New York Evening Graphic during the tabloid wars of the 1920s—and at the rise ofadvertising and celebrity images during the jazz age. The second segment turns to the rise ofthe wire...