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Seeing America

Seeing America: Women Photographers between the Wars

Melissa A. McEuen
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Seeing America
    Book Description:

    Seeing Americaexplores the camera work of five women who directed their visions toward influencing social policy and cultural theory. Taken together, they visually articulated the essential ideas occupying the American consciousness in the years between the world wars.

    Melissa McEuen examines the work of Doris Ulmann, who made portraits of celebrated artists in urban areas and lesser-known craftspeople in rural places; Dorothea Lange, who magnified human dignity in the midst of poverty and unemployment; Marion Post Wolcott, a steadfast believer in collective strength as the antidote to social ills and the best defense against future challenges; Margaret Bourke-White, who applied avant-garde advertising techniques in her exploration of the human condition; and Berenice Abbott, a devoted observer of the continuous motion and chaotic energy that characterized the modern cityscape.

    Combining feminist biography with analysis of visual texts, McEuen considers the various prisms though which each woman saw and revealed America. Their documentary photographs were the result of personal visions that had been formed by experiences and emotions as well as by careful calculations and technological processes. These photographers captured the astounding variety of occupations, values, and leisure activities that shaped the nation, and their photographs illuminate the intricate workings of American culture in the 1920s and 1930s.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5841-9
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    WhenLifephotographer Margaret Bourke-White drafted an essay forPopular Photographymagazine in the fall of 1939, she reminded readers and fellow photographers, “It is the thoughts that live in your head that count even more than the subjects in front of your lens.”¹ Her judgment alerted every creator of visual images and every subsequent observer of those pictures to the vital reality that understanding the substance of a photograph requires understanding the person behind the camera. The whole range of ideas, prejudices, and desires that a photographer harbors is as significant as what he or she chooses to frame....

  5. 1 Documentarian with Props Doris Ulmann’s Vision of an Ideal America
    (pp. 9-74)

    A few weeks before her death at age fifty-two, Doris Ulmann wrote, “Personally, I think there is always more value in doing one thing thoroughly and as well as possible than in spreading over a large area and getting just a little of many things.”¹ The specific reference was to her current photography project, but the statement also clearly defined the approach she had taken in her twenty years behind the camera. Spending hours with each subject, posing and reposing, Ulmann ultimately created a composite image of the person or object on which she focused. Her method of painstakingly observing...

  6. 2 Portraitist as Documentarian Dorothea Lange’s Depiction of American Individualism
    (pp. 75-124)

    Dorothea Lange spent more than sixty years living what she called a “visual life.” She admitted that such an existence was “an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable,” yet she claimed to have pursued it from a very early age. Lange’s most vivid childhood memories revolved around the skills of observation she cultivated and finely tuned on New York City streets in the first decades of the twentieth century. Her experiences there as a young girl affected her approach to the world and to the lives she studied throughout her career as a photographer. Like her uptown New York contemporary Doris Ulmann,...

  7. 3 A Radical Vision on Film Marion Post’s Portrayal of Collective Strength
    (pp. 125-196)

    When Marion Post moved to Washington in 1938, she carried cultural baggage heavy with radical politics and innovative art. About her personal convictions, she remembered, “I had warm feelings for blacks, could communicate effectively with children, had deep sympathy for the underprivileged, resented evidence of conspicuous consumption, [and] felt the need to contribute to a more equitable society.”¹ Nearly every image Post produced with U.S. Government equipment and on U.S. Government time reflects those convictions; her photographs also show that she sought out the vitality effusing from everyday life and ordinary people and their relationships with one another, even in...

  8. 4 Of Machines and People Margaret Bourke-White’s Isolation of Primary Components
    (pp. 197-250)

    At a 1934 conference in New York entitled “Choosing a Career,” an advertising executive told the following story: “If [our company] had let us say a brand of peanuts that weren’t selling very well at ten cents a bag because people didn’t think they were worth ten cents, thought they were only five cent peanuts, usually the inevitable conference would be called, and after a half hour or so of collaboration, the conclusion of the conference would always be the same, the best thing to do would be to hire Miss Margaret Bourke-White to take a picture of the peanuts...

  9. 5 Modernism Ascendant Berenice Abbott’s Perception of the Evolving Cityscape
    (pp. 251-290)

    When a New Deal project official first saw Berenice Abbott’s Bowery pictures, he warned her that nice girls should stay out of certain New York City neighborhoods. Abbott retorted, “I’m not a nice girl. I’m a photographer.” That such a warning could be given, even in jest, revealed the widely accepted limitations still placed on female photographers, especially those who stepped outside the confines of a studio to ply their trade in the 1930s urban world. Abbott’s succinct reply clearly reflected her no-nonsense view of herself, including a valued ordering of professional responsibility over certain gendered restrictions. Since Abbott had...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 291-298)

    Berenice Abbott’s confidante, the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, wrote in 1939 that documentary photography’s rapid growth indicated “strong organic forces at work, strong creative impulses seeking an outlet suitable to the serious and tense spirit of our age.” Arguing that documentary stood worlds apart from earlier, more introspective and short-lived experimental fads in photography, McCausland characterized documentary’s purpose as “the profound and sober chronicling of the external world.” That same year, FSA Photography Section director Roy Stryker sat on a panel addressing “Some Neglected Sources of Social History” at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. In his presentation Stryker challenged...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 299-330)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 331-348)
  13. Index
    (pp. 349-362)