RECOMMENDED FOR READING
American Photography and the American Dream
Book by James Guimond; University of North Carolina Press, 1991
The emergence of the photograph as an object of study surely strikes one of the distinctive notes in contemporary cultural studies: the photograph not only newly discovered in its plentitude of cultural and ideological implication but also as a cardinal site of cultural conflict, of contests over interpretation and meaning and over the social power of images to control not only perceptions across the fines of class and gender and ethnic identity but the perception of reality itself. The first discovery--difficult to date exactly but not unrelated to the invention of an idea of a socially combative "documentary" photography in Europe and America in the 1920s and 1930s--was simply that photographs do in fact "mean," that the image worlds they project also declaim or insinuate ideas about that world, the "reality" constructed by and as the photographic image-and that such meanings possess unfathomed public power.
From this uncovering of the arbitrary world-making work of the photograph followed another powerful insight: that photographic reality is never absolute, never a merely automatic or mechanical reflex, never free of local and immediate contingencies of presentation (where and how the viewer encounters and engages with the image)--always, in short, a "reality" overdetermined by a convergence of factors of extraordinary richness to the cultural analyst. These factors--the photographic apparatus and format, the photographer's choices and what can be deduced from them as conceptual intentions, the intertextuality of pictures' echoing and revising and canceling each other across a seemingly horizonless terrain of image exchange, the locus and mode of presentation and re-presentation, formal critical reception and canonization, informal popular reception--are perhaps finally impossible to retrieve and process and understand, yet just as impossible to avoid trying, if we seriously wish to understand photographs as the entangled historical data of ideology and culture they are.
has a clear place within the large project of cultural interpretation of photographs now underway in several disciplines at once. Readers will have no trouble recognizing its place and its virtues: a plain-speaking account of selected representations of the American Dream--myth or value or ideology, a body of ideas, perceptions, symbols, predispositions to judge and interpret--that lies athwart American life. The book chooses to discuss photographers with something on their mind, mainly "documentary" photographers but also several whose category of labor is known as "photojournalism" or "art"--all such categories really terms for institutional locations and their formal determinations. Eschewing global theories of representation or efforts to propose a single critical procedure applicable to the medium as a whole, Guimond's book takes up one case after another of a particular photographic discourse that crosses boundaries of genre, style, and formalist category: the discourse of commentary, by means of photography, upon the charged and conflicted symptoms of American life known as the American Dream.
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| The book is political and social history as much as photographic criticism-indeed its method will be familiar as a traditional American studies interdisciplinary approach. Solidly grounded in historical event, American Photography and the American Dream moves freely and unselfconsciously from picture to text to context, from biography to editorial decision making to picture analysis, and in its predominantly narrative mode seeks to locate its photographic texts in a social and political relation to the propositions of the Dream. Thus the book addresses what Guimond calls "mainstream" culture. Political and aesthetic avant-garde photography is not part of the story. Organizing his story as a reconstructed debate between liberal and conservative, or Left and Right, versions of the American Dream, Guimond seeks to politicize photography, to view mainstream images as arguments about the idea of America: is the nation happy or discontent, true to its hegemeonic ideals of equality and opportunity (the conventional terminology of the Dream), or is it betraying them? "Obviously the Dream," Guimond writes, "has been very elastic." Its terminology and imagery have been deployed both to celebrate and to condemn, to blame the poor and disadvantaged as responsible for themselves or to side with the losers against the rich, the comfortable, the smug, and the institutions they control. The very same Dream has served to exclude and restrict and at the same time to denounce all exclusions and restrictions, to contrast realities with promises.
Yet at the center, and this is what makes the book a critique of the mainstream, lies a core notion shared by conservative celebrants and liberal (and radical) social critics alike: in Guimond's words, "The conception of America as a kind of magic environment or society that has the power to transform people's lives, the idea that the United States is not merely a new world, but a different kind of world, a unique place where the limitations, boundaries, and inequities that formerly confined the human race either do not exist or are about to disappear." This exceptionalist vision of a society governed by a rhetorical Dream flexible enough to serve alternate and even opposing social ideologies gives Guimond's book the power of a fundamental critique.
But a critique of exceptionalism as such does not hold the highest priority in American Photography and the American Dream: photography does, and the critical experience of socially meaningful pictures. Guimond deftly places photographs within the history of American society and politics, locates them within the dialectic of the Dream, and shows how a position toward that dialectic functions in the making of the particular versions of American reality projected by the photographs. By such maneuvers Guimond compels his readers to consider and reconsider the potency that still lies within the medium to awaken in viewers a sense of the social reality of others. Skepticism toward this notion of the practical viability of photographs in raising public and civic awareness is much in currency at the moment, but Guimond's conviction that camera images might enable us "to step out of our old ideas about ordinary realities and experience them in a fresher, more vivid way" affirms a hope rooted in an American progressivism that seems still to endure against severe odds. American Photography and the American Dream should reopen debates about the social power and functionality of the medium many have thought already foreclosed.