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  • The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation
  • Nancy Armstrong
The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation. Blake Stimson . Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2006. Pp. x + 220. $19.95 (paper).

So many critical studies of American culture make grand claims on the basis of scant evidence that it comes as a pleasure to read Blake Stimson's Pivot of the World. The author carefully stakes out his territory as three photographic exhibits that attracted significant critical attention during the mid-twentieth century: Edward Steichen's The Family of Man (1955), Robert Frank's The Americans (1959), and Bernd and Hilla Becher's systematic photographing of industrial structures (1967). Stimson's first and most compelling reason for comparing these particular exhibits is to call attention to a distinct visual art form, the photographic essay, which, as he describes it, is committed to "feeling its way subjectively toward understanding about its object of investigation rather than through either the systematic analysis of science or the expressive enunciation of art" (32). Avoiding the extremes of modernism and consumer culture, such sequences of photographic images achieve coherence by means of their internal development from one image to the next.

Stimson proceeds to show how each of his exemplary exhibitions works through "the problem of political subjectivity—the problem of how to belong in the world and how to constitute new forms of belonging" (58). As it moves from exhibit to exhibit, his argument inserts a discrete cultural moment between modernism and postmodernism that challenges any unproblematic use of this opposition to understanding twentieth-century American culture. Rather than celebrate the vision of a particular photographer in the manner of modernism, and less fascinated with the products of a consumer-driven mass culture than postmodernism, he wants us to understand how The Family of Man and The Americans turned photography into an autonomous agent capable of transforming the world, as Steichen put it, into a "training ground for critical public reflection" addressed toward the pressing political issues of the day (24).

Stimson's selection of The Family of Man to launch this argument serves as an important corrective to the prevailing critical view that this exhibit, despite its phenomenal international reception, was never more than "a sort of humanist Trojan horse sneaking American-dominated economic globalization and political hegemony past restrictive political boundaries in the belly of a maudlin cultural embrace" (67). Stimson concedes this point, however, in order to ask the far more urgent question of how an exhibit of such obvious banality nevertheless attracted nine million viewers in thirty-seven countries by focusing on the political impact of the exhibit which resides in the shared identity achieved by the pictures' address to their beholders.

What The Family of Man did to the traditional opposition between self as subject and self as object was to define it "first and foremost by process rather than static opposition, by the flow of identification from one position to the next and the next and the next" (82). Positioned in between images, the beholder turns his body from one image to the next. Herbert Bayer sought in his original design the same objective that Steichen materialized by his meticulous curating of the [End Page 382] exhibit: the transformation of the audience into a single collective subject. The oppositions for which the 1950s were known "were to be kept in play in order to create a new sense of being in the world, and with it, a new sense of belonging" (87). The erotic component that accompanies the pulsating alternation of bodies offered up for identification is for Stimson the very quality that makes The Family of Man so symptomatic of the nuclear age.

To the question that launched his reading—"whence comes its claim to be 'the greatest photographic exhibition of all time'?"—Stimson arrives at a more lyrical answer than I would prefer, loosely based, as it is, on psychoanalytic logic. The Family of Man modifies an earlier relation between the individual viewer of a photograph and subjected populations depicted so that the image no longer affirms the individuality of that viewer. On the contrary, the photo essay forces...


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pp. 382-384
Launched on MUSE
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