- Making Photography Matter: A Viewer’s History from the Civil War to the Great Depression by Cara A. Finnegan
In four case studies spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Cara A. Finnegan examines how viewers individually and collectively understood images. Bridging the fields of rhetoric, communication, and visual studies, Finnegan analyzes a variety of published and unpublished written responses to photographs. In doing so, she identifies the ideas and discourses that viewers marshaled to reveal their visual consumption and cultural knowledge. She investigates a series of “reading problems” faced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century viewers, succinctly explaining how they made sense of the images they encountered (p. 3). She elucidates the process of photographic interpretation by explaining the cultural discourses in circulation for each case study and by analyzing the language viewers recorded of their visual interaction.
Organized chronologically, the chapters provide keen insights into viewer reception and agency. The first chapter evaluates how viewers of photographs grappled with the death wrought by the Civil War. Using detailed textual and [End Page 692] visual descriptions, writers guided viewers of Civil War photographs to “see” and vicariously experience the death scenes. In an especially provocative portion of the chapter, Finnegan scrutinizes spirit photography debates and trials to show how viewers impressed their desires on images to commemorate the dead. The challenge to see “presence”—the deceased as well as the devastation of war—revealed that the beliefs of the viewers became the truths that they derived from images (p. 14). The 1895 publication of a newly discovered photograph of a young Abraham Lincoln provides a second study for how viewers drew on history, nostalgia, and imagination to understand Lincoln’s character. The third chapter explains how the text and images in Thomas Robinson Dawley Jr.’s 1912 book, The Child That Toileth Not: The Story of a Government Investigation, “refute an activist narrative” denouncing child labor (p. 93). Finnegan shows how Dawley appropriated anti–child labor images and arguments to fashion propaganda alleging child labor’s redemptive benefits. The last chapter explains how visitors to the First International Photographic Exposition held in New York City in 1938 “negotiated the magnitude of the crisis” brought on by the Great Depression (p. 131). Finnegan skillfully parses the hundreds of comment cards viewers left to reveal their shame, anxiety, and calls for public policy and increased publicity of the severity of the Great Depression.
The methodologies and theories that Finnegan employs in the book bring scholars much closer to rendering visible how viewers use an ever-changing repertoire of ideas to express their interactions with images and how photography shapes their self-perception. Finnegan’s work reminds scholars not only that viewing experiences are contingent and contextual but also that they reveal viewers’ agency and interiority. Providing a more critical approach to both the presence and absence of race in the third and fourth chapters would strengthen the book. Much more robust analyses of fears over the future of American identity in chapter 2 and the threats to white citizenship expressed in Dawley’s work in the third chapter are needed. Notwithstanding these issues, Finnegan’s well-written and tightly argued book is of great use to scholars in many disciplines.