American Photography: A Century of Images

Kodak Brownie Box Camera


The very first Brownie Box Camera was shipped by Kodak in February 1900. When it was discontinued in October of the following year (superseded until the 1980s by dozens of Brownie model “upgrades”), it had sold nearly 250,000 units. The price was $1, and if you added less than $1 more, the package included a six-exposure 2¼ x 2¼ negative film roll, developing and prints.

Even more than the original Kodak box camera of 1888, the Brownie turned the population of the United States into “camera bugs,” or at least camera subjects, in a photo revolution as significant as today’s “selfies.”

The Kodak Box Camera introduced in 1888.
The Kodak Box Camera introduced in 1888.

With the Brownie, American “vernacular photography” was born, and despite the 20th century pageant of news, advertising, forensic, scientific and art photography that constitutes the standard history, it is the billions of amateur photographs — “snapshots” — that, in fact, embody the American century of photography.


At the end of the last century, in 1999, Twin City PBS station KTCA in St. Paul-Minneapolis produced a three-episode series called American Photography: A Century of Images. It was a bracing alternative to most of the critical and scholarly studies of photography at the time.

The May 1999 tornado that tore through Kansas and Oklahoma, devastating much of Moore, Okla., is shown in the opening left-to-right panning shot of Episode 1.

The aftermath of a tornado in Moore, Okla.
Aftermath of the May 1999 tornado in Moore, Okla.

A few shots later, a counter right-to-left dolly shot reveals photographs retrieved from the tornado’s wreckage carefully laid out on tables, the prized possessions of families who had come to sift through the detritus of their lives. We are reminded that when people are forced to abandon their homes in the face of fire, flood or earthquake, the first things they often grab are their family photos. Survivors of the Moore tornado offer moving testimony as they find their precious family mementos.

Thomas and Lisa Jones of Moore, Okla.
Thomas and Lisa Jones of Moore, Okla.

Underlying the deep emotions recorded in this sequence is the point of view of this entire PBS series: the photographs most of us take spring from our hearts, not our minds. Photographs may be records of intimate family events, or they may be collectible multi-print editions hanging on New York City Chelsea gallery walls. Either way, they are tangible testimonies of an encounter between photographer and subject. They say, “We are here.” As I watched this insightful series, I continued to be haunted by the simple reality of the physical print, something that is qualitatively different from offering your iPhone screen to a friend. The paper print, however compromised or damaged, is a different kind of testimony; it is an icon, even a secular relic.

Early in the first episode, the incisive cultural critic Luc Sante (Low Life) explains how the penny picture postcard of the turn of the century became the ubiquitous record of our popular culture. Cheaply reproduced and widely circulated photographs were born with half-tone printing in the 1880s, but it was not until 1905 that a well regarded text-only magazine introduced photographs. This was National Geographic, the brainchild of Gilbert Grosvenor.

At the same time, Edward Curtis finally secured financial sponsorship from banker and entrepeneur J.P. Morgan for his ambitious 20-volume photographic opus, The North American Indian. Some of today’s social critics demean Curtis’ wide-ranging cultural appropriations, but American history would be impoverished if we had had no Curtis (or Vroman, Soule or Rinehart) to show us our nation’s indigenous citizens, people who were rapidly being deracinated by the inexorable march of Manifest Destiny.

Amateur photography in America became ubiquitous so quickly that it helped spawn a reactive movement among a group of Eastern professional photographers, the Photo-Secessionists, who argued for their often painterly photography to be accepted as art. John Szarkowski, a longtime director of MoMA’s department of photography and a critic who espoused a rigid modernist aesthetic, discusses Stieglitz and Steichen as deeply self-aware artists — men who were to change yet again with the startling work shown in 1916 by the young Paul Strand. Strand showed Stieglitz bold, edgy images made in a style that soon came to be known as “straight photography," a style that became dominant after World War I and found its apotheosis in the work of Edward Weston and the West Coast f. 64 photographers.

While some photographers argued that their images were art, others employed photography as a force for societal change, publishing deeply disturbing photographs of ethnic and racial exploitation as “evidence.” Foremost among these provocateurs was Lewis Hine.

Next in the episode, eminent war historian Paul Fussell and Szarkowski present an unflinching portrait of World War I and the military’s attempt to suppress horrific images. You may be reminded of attempts by the Bush Administration to control media during the second Gulf War by “embedding” reporters and photographers in the field under the scrutiny of military commanders.

Sleazy-tabloid wars of the 1920s led to the founding of more responsible photo weeklies in the 1930s. New magazines such as Life and Look initiated a golden age of photojournalism that was expansive and free enough to embrace some of America’s greatest photographers, including W. Eugene Smith, a fiercely independent artist who eventually did run afoul of Life’s editorial practices.

The first issue of Life.
The first issue of Life.

The glossy counterpoint to these often stark images was the highly art-directed advertising photography that often appeared on the same pages. Nowhere was this blend of news, promotion and advertising more intense than in the photography of celebrities such as Babe Ruth and the stars of the Hollywood dream factory; the commodification of beautiful or famous people reached a kind of nadir in the media hysteria surrounding the death of Rudolph Valentino.

In a sobering section, Neil de Grasse Tyson extols the “expanding vision” of reality that photography has given us. Then, in a postscript to Episode 1, the late actor/photographer Leonard Nimoy brings us back full circle to family snapshots of his Russian relatives.

Here is Episode 1:


Episode 2, “The Photographic Age,” examines the pre-eminence of the news photograph in its many manifestations. The introduction of the wire photo created a community of shared information all over the country. It startled even its most enthusiastic advocates with the speed with which it permeated the culture. This was nowhere more dramatic than in Murray Becker’s three photos of the exploding zeppelin Hindenburg as it began to land in Lakehurst, N.J. Then, the story of the police and ambulance-chasing night owl Arthur Fellig, a.k.a. “Weegee,” is emblematic of the urgency of an image-obsessed era.

WeeGee and his darkroom.
Weegee and his "office."

The Nov. 23,1936, issue of Life ushered in that golden age of American photojournalism with an uncanny mix of news, celebrities, science and personal stories, its format consolidating the story and myth of America as most American came to believe it. Brooklyn-born Italian-American ad executive Jerry Della Femina tells of the powerful influence Life had on his own development.

The annual series of photographs of Marion Chadwick and her father also validated the importance of “snapshot” and demotic photography — again, the abiding theme that runs through American Photography: A Century of Images.

The newsmagazine more than justifies its position in American culture during the dark decade of the 1930s, publishing the work of a generation of men and women photographers of Roy Stryker’s FSA. These artists gave the world a portrait of America during the Great Depression, creating images that continue to haunt us today. In an interview, Gordon Parks recalls how his single photograph of charwoman Ella Watson became a Black American Gothic, lending a near metaphysical dimension to the era’s story of poverty and privation.

Gordon Parks' photo of Ella Watson in 1942.
Gordon Parks' 1942 photo of Ella Watson.

In a section titled “World War II: Five Photographs,” we see five contrasting images that encapsulate the photographic record of that war: a Betty Grable pin-up, Margaret Bourke-White’s ravaged survivors of Auschwitz, Robert Capa’s D-Day image of a soldier in the water, Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima, and Natalie Nickerson’s less known but deeply disturbing memento mori contemplation of the skull of a Japanese soldier.

America’s psychic recovery from World War II is seen in the MoMA exhibition The Family of Man, with the photographs displayed not just as framed images, but as mural-sized icons of the planet’s shared humanity — a trope that found less than universal consensus even in the 1950s. The series cinematographer, Tom Hurwitz, describes the effect this landmark exhibition had on his own photographic consciousness, recalling some of the individual images in moving detail.

Episode 2’s corollary to Episode 1’s section on celebrity images is a look at fashion photography and its glossy “sell.” But, as Della Femina concludes, “Nothing looks as good [in real life] as in the photograph.”

The recurring theme of the vernacular family photo returns in a wonderful section narrated by Carl Toth of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He describes how the depiction of the all-American family hallowed by Life and Look became key components of the 1950s suburban zeitgeist.

The tone turns dark at the end of this episode, as Luc Sante returns to speak out for the “chaos of life” embodied in the work of outliers like William Klein, Robert Frank and Bruce Davidson. This reached its darkest hour in the horrific photos of the beaten body of young Emmett Till — images that, predictably, were published only in the "Negro" press.

Here is Episode 2:


In the opening of Episode 3, “Photography Transformed,” musician/collector Graham Nash talks about the enduring power of the still image as the “frozen essence” of an event, the seminal instant that burns itself into our consciousness. We cut to Danny Lyon, one of the century’s most underrated photographers, an artist who continues to grow today; he speaks about the photos of police brutality in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, photos that helped to transform the minds of concerned whites in the rest of the country.

Danny Lyon in Albany, Ga.
Danny Lyon in Albany, Ga.

David Friend then speaks of the power of the era’s war photographs in turning Americans against the Vietnam War. In a section that recalls the five photos of World War II, we are shown four images.

Malcolm Browne recounts his photo of the June 10, 1963, self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Quang Duc on the streets of Saigon. Although the New York Times refused to publish such a graphic image, it did print one that resounded around the world. Vicki Goldberg speaks of Eddie Adams’ photograph of Saigon police chief Gen. Loan’s execution of a Vietcong suspect; it was placed above the fold on the front page of the Times. Harold Evans then talks about Nick Utt’s harrowing image of a nude, screaming, napalmed Vietnamese girl running toward his camera. Finally, Graham Nash returns to talk about John Paul Filo’s photos of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of a fellow Kent State University student on May 4, 1970. All these images were burned into the Boomer Generation’s consciousness, much as the five photos discussed earlier haunted the "Greatest Generation."

Mary Ann Vecchio cries out over the body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. ©1970 John Paul Filo. All Rights reserved.
Mary Ann Vecchio cries out over the body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University. ©1970 John Paul Filo. All rights reserved.

After a scene featuring Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, Deborah Willis talks about historical caricatures of Blacks, juxtaposing them with photographs made by African-Americans, in a section titled “Picturing Ourselves.”

Crime-scene photography and its use in forensics and trials serve as prelude to the greater crimes of governments against people, whether in Germany, Cambodia, the Balkans or Rwanda — a litany of unimaginable horror that punctuates the entire century. One has to finally question the efficacy of mere image making amid the great miasma of ethnic hatred that continues to frame our existence.

Perhaps the sole irritating (to me at least) speaker in the entire series is Michael Deaver, who was the gatekeeper for photos taken of his boss, the always camera-comfortable Ronald Reagan. Deaver’s braggadocio about his manipulation of the news media bleats a sadly sour note in American Photography. However, his shenanigans were child’s play compared to David Turnley’s discussion of our government’s control of photographic images during the Gulf War.

The segment “Tales from the Digital Age” gives lie to Goldberg’s earlier assertion that we believe photos tell the truth. Maybe we used to believe that, but today even a preschooler is not unaware of the chameleon-like fabrications facilitated by the digital photograph. But even before the era of digital manipulation, artists were altering, copying and appropriating images, using them as raw material for their own art, or creating images that slavishly emulated the history of the medium. Rauschenberg, Sherman, Prince and Warhol (to some extent) are a few of the artists whose work would not exist without prior existing photographs.

Having risen from its humble origins as family portraiture and snapshots, the medium of photography today finds itself on the walls of trendy Manhattan galleries and international museums, while the all-important family photo exists increasingly in "the cloud."

Warhol's Marilyn.
Marilyn by Andy Warhol.

In American Photography, it is, finally, the gentle presence of Hilda Gore standing before the dark severity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington that brings us back to the series’ theme and the fundamental genius of what photography is: a time capsule of our lives. She sets a photograph of her long-deceased husband, Leo, into the wall’s channel below his name. It is this vulnerable photo, as much as his name's letters etched into stone, that is her husband’s final testament. Ironically, it is these all too fragile paper images of our lives that seem to endure.

Here is Episode 3:


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