Edward T. Linenthal, Editor and Donna J. Drucker, Editorial Assistant
Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 97–98
This round table is an exploration of the diverse relationships between photographs and twentieth-century American history. To examine such relationships, this collection seeks to highlight multiple perspectives on photographs. We are interested in the often-hidden dynamics and consequences of the creation, dissemination, and reception of photographs: what it is like to be a photographer, what is it like to be a subject, how images become consumer objects, how collections are created and ordered, and how photographs illuminate the meanings of American identity on individual, national, and global levels. These photographs focus on human faces: faces of Americans and faces Americans have photographed in the United States and abroad.
One purpose of this project is to challenge readers to think about how photographs operate in historical memory. It will take readers into the processes by which photographs are made, remembered, reinterpreted, re-created, celebrated, or maligned. Some of these photographs are well known; others have had limited or no circulation. Additional images that the original inspired or informed accompany several of them. Some of the questions the writers have addressed are: Does the photograph fit easily or jarringly into a particular conception, vision, frame, or narrative of American history? Has the photograph affected their personal lives, their teaching, or their understanding of the power of photography? What has the photograph captured, and what has it left out? Is the passion for photographs and images welcome in people’s lives, or can it become an unwanted intrusion? How does the ability to collapse complicated and emotional events into photographs affect those involved in the events? What role does the photographer’s intention take in how we understand photos from the past?
These photographs and essays cover a broad array of topics and themes in American history, including war and other forms of violence, democracy, liberalism, labor, consumption, gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, and landscape. This special section makes no claim to represent all dimensions of the recent history of photography in the United States. Instead, it offers a sampling of the hundreds of millions of photographs taken between 1900 and 2000 (and, for Jonathan Hyman’s essay, a few years beyond 2000) and suggests the insight into the American past that all those mostly unknown photographs might provide.
We met these authors through previous collaborations, professional connections, and serendipity. Several of the essays speak with a personal voice. This departure from traditional jah tone and style is deliberate, as one of our purposes is to juxtapose different voices on related topics and themes in the history of American photography, to provoke further questions about the images, and to tease out the connections and tensions between them. For example, Claude Cookman and Ted Engelmann contemplate the painful (and, for the victims of the My Lai massacre, fatal) consequences of taking photographs of people without learning their names or intervening on their behalf. Anthony Fernandez III and David Allen help us see how differently the photographer and the subject of the photograph may experience the moment captured in a picture (a point raised as well, and even more urgently, by Cookman). Similarly, the pairing of Colleen McDannell and Barbara Orbach Natanson allows McDannell to confirm Natanson’s claim that the Library of Congress collections are extraordinarily accessible through the Internet, as is much of the information historians need to understand the photos in those collections, offering us new opportunities for our work. Some pairings force us into complex conversations. Fernandez writes of expressions of the “American spirit” in the aftermath of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995 and of how a similar spirit motivated his service in the U.S. Marines.1 Cookman, on the other hand, asks us to recognize our nation’s potential for evil. By reading those two essays together, one is forced to retain both ideas in an uneasy relationship.
This project is also a response to ideas presented in the March 2006 jah in “Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom,” which encouraged the dynamic use of visual culture in teaching American history. As Michael T. Coventry and his colleagues in the Visible Knowledge Project argue, “While visuals have become commonplace in history classrooms and texts, rarely do images move to center stage to become the focus of interpretation or the source of new insights.” These photographs and essays (in the print version and on the jah Web site) are a resource for the kind of classroom instruction that the “Ways of Seeing” authors promote. We envision history instructors at the high school and college levels using this series of photographs as windows into the past throughout yearlong or semester-long survey courses or using one or a few to enhance an upper-level course.2
Finally, we hope to contribute to ongoing interdisciplinary thinking and reading among historians and to encourage colleagues to write for audiences outside their disciplines. The inclusion of authors who are not members of the historical profession reminds us that we are not the only ones with a relationship to photographs. We encourage your feedback on this round table. If feedback is positive, we envision a series of round tables on visual culture over time, such as seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury portraits, nineteenth-century photographs, photographs Americans took in other countries, and photographs people from elsewhere took in the United States.
The editors of the round table thank Nancy K. Bristow for her assistance in the preparation of this introduction.
1 Anthony Fernandez III, “Remembering the Oklahoma City Bombing,” Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007), [ms. P. 5].
2 Michael T. Coventry et al., “Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom,” ibid., 92 (March 2006), 1375.