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photography and the usa

28 september 2011

Mick Gidley makes clear early on that Photography and the USA is not about photography in or of the USA. This seems like a too-subtle distinction, but it shows the power of short English words. Photography in the USA would be just that subset of a world artform that occurred here. Photography of the USA would define the book by its subject matter. By choosing and as the key word of his title, Gidley allows the two halves of that title to interact with, to "constitute," each other.

Americans have always been in the forefront of developments in photography. Less often considered is that photographs have made the United States, as much as any other artform: perhaps more than our distinctive music, and more than our dominant cinema (even if you remove cinema from the realm of photography, as Gidley does, and limit your discussion to still images).

Gidley offers four chapters on his theme, and Reaktion books provides high-quality illustrations in their typical sharp style. Gidley looks at "Technologies," "Histories," "Documents," and "Emblems" – after an introduction that is instructive, despite its irritating habit of referring to the book itself in the third person by title (e.g. "One of the claims pressed in Photography and the USA," 13).

In "Technologies," Gidley looks at the American penchant for taking advances in a craft and marketing them on a vast scale. Lots of people worldwide started photography studios in the 19th century; it took American George Eastman to make home photography into a mass industrial process that radically democratized art (in the context of gigantic capitalist enterprise, of course). Some Americans (Edward Muybridge) exploited photographic technology at the cutting edge of science; others (Anatol Josepho) pressed new advances into the service of kitsch (the photobooth, where you could take your own photo or four in just seconds).

"Histories" looks at American themes like class, race, and region. "Documents" records specific endeavors like the Court House Project, meant to offer an architectural survey of the American legal system. "Emblems" looks at sharp social statements in pictures, like Peter Funch's amazing New York City street tableaux (staged? candid? art? life?) Much of these chapters is taken up with contrasting the American "straight style" (line up real life and shoot it without tricks) against various manipulations (in the camera, darkroom, or computer) of what the camera "sees."

And, frankly, these last three chapters blend together. History is document is emblem; the topics are too broad for incisiveness, and the book itself too short for the hugely ambitious project it undertakes. Photography and the USA ends up being a quick tour through various photographs and photographers. But it's very thought-provoking as it goes along. You're led to want to see more, know more, and read more about American photographs. Like this one:

The photo above (by Walker Evans, 1936) is not reprinted by Gidley, but it shows some of the concerns of his book. What could be straighter? (Unless indeed some of Evans's similar images of barn advertisements, shot at absolute right angles to the barn.) But for all its rectitude, what does the image "mean"? Is it lowbrow delight, middlebrow derision, or highbrow aesthetic distance? Is it "about" poverty, rural electrification, panem et circenses, miserable ecosystems, irrepressible inventiveness? Like Gidley, I don't have too much time to consider my own questions. But they are of the sort that Photography and the USA has raised for me.

Gidley, Mick. Photography and the USA. London: Reaktion, 2011.