Photography As Currency

This was the second time I read Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans. The first time I read the book I felt ambiguous toward its contents. This reading was no different. The book was categorized as history, but I don’t think it fit neatly into those parameters. This was probably to be expected, though, as Trachtenberg wrote not as a historian, but a professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.

Trachtenberg broke his book down into five chapters, each with its own overarching idea. The first chapter, entitled “Illustrious Americans” detailed the beginning of photography, starting with Daguerreotypes and the uses to which they were put. There were a few themes with which I was taken in this chapter. The first was the idea of photographs as currency. I spent a lot of time pondering whether this was a valid comparison or not. Trachtenberg likened photographs to money because they were permanent and held long-term value for their owners. The second theme was the idea of photography as masculine and feminine. I thought Trachtenberg could have delved a lot deeper here. He intimated that photography for private use, such as small Daguerreotypes that were primarily treasured for their ability to be held and touched, were more often of feminine significance. Women were pictured or women were the owners doing the holding and touching of the images. Photography on a grander scale, both physically and in terms of its uses, was a masculine sphere. Men were primarily pictured in these large commercial, often political, prints meant for public consumption. The last theme that caught my attention was Trachtenberg’s assertion that photographs were both alive and dead. A photograph represented an event that could never be duplicated. The image remained permanently, at least in theory. Thus, the person in a portrait could be viewed in a state of life long after he or she died. However, the moment was gone the moment the shutter snapped and the image was seared onto the negative. In this chapter, we also met Mathew Brady, the Man and the Legend. This chapter began my frustration with the book’s illustrations. Trachtenberg discussed a Daguerreotype of a Paris boulevard for some length (sadly, I can’t find the exact citation), but didn’t provide the image. Additionally, Gabriel Harrison’s beautiful picture, “Past, Present, and Future,” was discussed on page 66, without including a rendering (image 276 on the linked page).

Trachtenberg called chapter two “Albums of War.” In this portion, he detailed the ways in which the Civil War was documented via the still-new medium of photography. Here, he began with his ruminations on the value of photographs absent text. Mathew Brady was a major player in this section, along with George N. Barnard and his Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign and Alexander Gardner, who published Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War. I felt that David W. Blight did a far better job of discussing the Civil War in American memory in his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. The strongest portion of the chapter for me was the discussion of photographs involving the prolific Oliver Wendell Holmes. I thought this section illustrated the meanings of photographs in the nineteenth century nicely. The image of Holmes hiding the war photographs in a drawer was particularly poignant.

In chapter three, titled “Naming the View,” Trachtenberg ruminated on the role of the photograph and the American expansion westward. Timothy O’Sullivan loomed largest in this portion of the book. Here, the theme was naming and viewing. Trachtenberg asked his reader to consider the implications of giving names to newly discovered land features and what ramifications this had on native peoples: “The name lays claim to the view” (125). Additionally, he discussed the way photographs were used to modify scientific theories of the day, such as natural selection. Once again, I wish Trachtenberg would have given more time to this phenomenon and less to his oft-occurring literary analyses.

Chapter four, “Camera Work/Social Work” and chapter 5, “A Book Nearly Anonymous” were far more specific in their discussions of works and personalities than the previous chapters. The fourth chapter was Trachtenberg’s attempt to re-categorize Lewis Hine as less a documentary photographer and more a “social” photographer. He did this by contrasting Hine’s work with that of Alfred Stieglitz. Trachtenberg wanted to impart to the reader that Hine blended a certain amount of documentation with a specific process and aesthetic. Finally, in his last chapter, Trachtenberg sought to draw a direct connection from Brady to Hine to Walker Evans. For Trachtenberg, Evans was documenting a particular view of Americanness and what such an identity meant. Anonymity was a main theme here. One does not see a photographer when looking at a photograph, but the person who snapped the picture was still there. Subjects in portraits were often anonymous, or at least little information was provided about them, allowing the viewer to insert him- or herself into the image. Trachtenberg began his book with an explanation of how photography created a new sense of individuality and ended with the declaration that Americanness is was not about individuality at all.

Trachtenberg provided a lot to think about. I’m not sure I agree with all of his conclusions, but thought-provoking indeed they were. I also found myself frustrated with the lack of some of the images Trachtenberg discussed or the less-than-clear reproductions of the images that were included. I love photography and do a lot of thinking about the art. Lately I’ve been wondering if photographs accompanied by little or no text still have utility to historians. Trachtenberg played a little bit with this question, but I did not feel he provided a satisfying answer. Clearly, there’s a lot to chew on and I’m looking forward to discussing this book along with the other readings on Thursday night.