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BEARING WITNESS: MICHAEL LESY AND PHOTOGRAPHY AS HISTORICAL RESOURCE by Josh Brown After perusing Michael Lesy's Bearing Witness? a collection of photo* graphs arranged chronologically from the Civil War to the end of the Second World War, I experienced a peculiar sensation. It was neither a pleasant nor a complicated response; G was left with nothing more profound than a bad taste in my mouth. Why such a response? Many of the book's individual images are disturbing , ranging from disemboweled Union soldiers, to child labor, to catastrophes. Some of the photographs are simply strange when seen through present-day eyes: black children in Hampton, Virginia (late in the nineteenth century, I assume) pledging allegiance to the American flag, all giving an archaic salute which comes across now as an eerie rendition of the Nazi "Sieg Heil." Other images—although a distinct minority-are undeniably intriguing, such as one photograph of cows picking at the sparse grass before a mine shaft in Calumet, Michigan, a wonderful earlytwentieth -century comment (probably unconscious on the photographer's part) on the nineteenth-century painterly convention of depicting the factory within idyllic rural surroundings. The whimsy of the Calumet, Michigan photograph notwithstanding, as Warren Susman notes in the book's preface, Lesy's own vision of America leads him "to stress images of the wounded, the despairing, the damaged, and the confused." So, oddly, my response of distaste to Bearing Witness is Lesy's triumph. He wants the viewer to be stung and upset by what can be summarized as this horrid portrait of America's past. Yet, with this conceded, Lesy's attained goal only reflects the banality of his message. Lesy's visual examination of history contains no compelling, incisive look Bn.ou)n lb Vlnzcton. o¿ Visual Rzòzanch and Gnwphlc Ant oi the. Amznlcan Won.kA.ng C¿ai>& Hlí>ton.y Vn.oie.et, Gna.dix.atz (Lenten, C. U. M. V. He. i¿> a memben. oI the. zditonlal boaná o{ the. Radical Hlbton.y Review, and hid canlcatuAzi, will appzan. In Vlòlonò- oj Hi¿ton.y· íntznvleitib With Radical HlòtontanA [Panthzon, 1983) . 43 critique; on the contrary, Bearing Witness comes across as a gussied-up form of voyeurism and a paean to morbidity. Bearing Witness is no random catalogue of photographs. "The images," Lesy writes in his Introduction, "arranged in sequence,. . .form a composite portrait of the United States from 1860 to 1945, similar to a detailed photo map made of the earth's terrain by a satellite circling a hundred miles above the planet's surface." Therefore, analyzing individual photographs from the collection Lesy has culled from the massive repositories of the Library of Congress, National Archives and the Pentagon would be an inappropriate way of evaluating Bearing Witness. Lesy's creation is his compilation of photos, how he juxtaposed individual images, arranged their sequence and their collective impact as a totality. Placed in rough chronological order, the photographs are divided into themes: specific events like the Civil War and the Philippine Insurrection, discrete eras like the Great Depression, and more amorphous topics such as "Misfortunes,1 "Farm Life" and "Romance and Family Life." Going through the book then, section by section, viewing images that are sometimes unsettling, sometimes gruesome, sometimes oddly mundane, the viewer is left with little more than a feeling of shame. Lesy, I think, would be pleased with this response, an emotion central to his critique. Citing Walter Benjamin in an epigraph, Lesy sees the pastas "a chain of events" that is really "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage," a catastrophe created and simultaneously ignored by "progress." We are meant to close the book shaking our heads in disbelief and revulsion: oh, the waste and suffering! And, yes, the squalor and horrendous sacrifice of many American's lives and the vacuousness of much of the popular culture deserves our outrage. Yet, is that all we can dredge up as a critique? Should our response to the Civil War, for example, be shaped only by images of desolation, of portraits of hayseed and pompous officers, of photos of dead horses and mutilated corpses, all culminating in the unrevealing conclusion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 43-46
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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