American Faces: Twentieth-Century Photographs

Photographs represent a ubiquitous feature of contemporary life. As the essays collected in the “American Faces” round table testify, photographs also serve as primary-source documents that yield important information about the past and illuminate larger historical issues. The authors of these pieces— David Allen, Claude Cookman, Ted Engelmann, Anthony Fernandez III, Jonathan Hyman, Michael Lesy, Colleen McDannell, Barbara Orbach Natanson, Eric Sandweiss, Robert Hariman, and John Louis Lucaites— include professional and amateur photographers as well as historians and archivists. Their writings make it clear that there is no single way to understand a particular image. Although a photographer's vision might suggest one way to think about an image, the subjects and viewers can construct alternative meanings; moreover the readings change not only across cultural and social groups but across time as well. In her rejoinder, Martha A. Sandweiss argues that, taken together, these essays raise critical questions about the use of photographs by historians: What does a historian need to know to interpret a photograph as a historical document? And how stable are images as records of the past?

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“American Faces: Twentieth-Century Photographs,” Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 97–202.