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  • Remaking Reality: U.S. Documentary Culture after 1945 ed. by Sara Blair, Joseph B. Entin, and Franny Nudelman
  • Edward Slavishak
Remaking Reality: U.S. Documentary Culture after 1945. Edited by Sara Blair, Joseph B. Entin, and Franny Nudelman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. [xii], 251. paper, $32.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-38690; cloth, $90.00, ISBN 978-1-4696-3868-3.)

Remaking Reality: U.S. Documentary Culture after 1945 is an excellent collection about documentary practice in the United States since World War II. Editors Sara Blair, Joseph B. Entin, and Franny Nudelman assemble nine essays that provide an effective overview of the goals and methods of writers, visual artists, and field recorders. The book's underlying assumption is that documentary work has never been disinterested. The contributors demonstrate that documentarians are devoted to more than realist, indexical representations; they are also engaged in changing the world. Documentaries are positioned and political, in other words, and, after 1945, became increasingly self-reflexive. The contributors know their audience well, so they avoid belaboring these points. Instead, they work to show how documentarians exemplified this engagement with specific technological, environmental, economic, and political conditions. [End Page 217]

The collection's main argument is that documentary making has been more embedded and more networked than scholars have acknowledged. At the heart of Remaking Reality is the "dialectical relationship between documentarians, their subjects, and the conditions they observe" (p. 3). The editors organize the essays in a roughly chronological fashion, introduced by a set of three "through-lines, or crosscutting interests": the use of documentary to build and represent social movements, the purposeful experimentation with the structure and rules of documentary, and the tweaking of documentary to get at things that cannot be literally documented (p. 9).

A brief account of the essays shows the breadth at play. Jonathan Kahana and Noah Tsika examine the use of on-camera interviews as evidence in the 1946 U.S. Army Signal Corps film Let There Be Light. Franny Nudelman considers John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946) and Robert Jay Lifton's Death in Life (1968) as treatments of the "institutional production of subjectivity" through experimental therapy (p. 37). Laura Wexler studies cartoonist Keiji Nakazawa's "'atomic bomb manga'" via the framework of "'transmedial revision'" (pp. 55, 56). Daniel Worden analyzes Rachel Carson's "speculative documentary" techniques, particularly her depiction of elusive natural processes (p. 84). The civil rights-era audio recordings of Guy and Candie Carawan are Grace Elizabeth Hale's subject, which she casts as a radical expansion of what it meant to participate in a movement. Sara Blair probes the antiwar stances of Richard Avedon's photographic portraits and Martha Rosler's photomontages in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Joseph B. Entin juxtaposes the labor photography of Milton Rogovin and Allan Sekula, finding commonalities in their takes on workers' experiences under deindustrialization and globalization. The penultimate essay, by Rebecca M. Schreiber, considers the recent video activism of the National Immigration Youth Association as producing "counterdocuments" to U.S. immigration policy (p. 172). Michael Mark Cohen and Leigh Raiford's final essay reveals how, at the University of California, Berkeley, documentary forms have been central to the struggle over the nature of public universities amid state divestment.

Steadily, the reader adjusts to the flexibility of documentary as a descriptor; one of the editors' achievements is to recast what the genre includes. Had Schreiber's essay on activists' videos appeared early in the book, one might question how useful it is to categorize hidden-camera projects and viral testimonials as documentary. Instead, the preceding authors chip away at traditional labels, pointing toward Schreiber's sense of "the changing context of documentary practices" (pp. 186-87). Once contexts change, definitions can, too. This insight is one of the book's most convincing angles, and it comes across less through explicit argumentation than through the accumulation and arrangement of scholarship. Several contributors use the word register to stress that people pursue documentary practices through various modes of engagement with the world. This idea applies well to the collection, too; scholars from adjacent disciplines work in different registers to appreciate the complexity...


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pp. 217-219
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