Title Reviewed:
American Photography and the American Dream

Author Reviewed:
James Guimond

Stephen J. Fletcher


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 89, Issue 3, pp 278-279

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Photography and the American Dream. By James Guimond. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Pp. 341. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth-bound, $39.95; paperbound, $17.95.)

Carl Jung valued dreams because he believed in their ability to advance self-knowledge when viewed within the context of one's life. In this seminal study James Guimond evaluates the American Dream within a historical context as reflected and projected by photography.

Chapter One, "Dreams and Documents," describes both the imagery to be analyzed and the author's assumptions. Guimond's focus is "the relationship between Americans' ideas about their nation and their ways of illustrating these ideas, particularly with photographs, between 1899 and the mid-1980s" (p. 4). The author chose photographs characterized as "civic" and "documentary." Civic images illustrate "something the citizens might learn about themselves and their own lives" (p. 4). Documentary photographs depict social conditions rather than explore esoteric aesthetics and use representative imagery that "captures the drama of ordinary people" with the intent "to overcome or dispose some false, superficial, or stereotyped viewpoints about their ‘ordinary’ subjeots" (p. 5). Guimond assumes that the camera is an extension of the mind and that the photographs he selected are, citing Goya, products of a functional art intended "to banish harmful common beliefs and to perpetuate … the sound testimony of truth" (p. 18).

The balance of the book is an examination of the parallel abilities of photography and the American Dream to empower societal transformation. The author contrasts the erosion of industrial "white" education for African Americans and Native Americans at Virginia's Hampton Institute as represented in Frances Johnston's 1899 photographs. He investigates the relationship between child labor and immigration and Lewis Hine's combined use of his photographs and advertising methodology to evoke reform. He reveals the rise of documentary photography through the portrayal of the Great Depression by the Farm Security Administration photographers and its subsequent abandonment for photojournalism and the patriotic projections of the editors and photographers at Life, Look, and the United States Information Agency. He examines the views of America as wasteland by William Klein, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, he exposes the failures of the American Dream in the 1970s and 1980s as represented in the work of four photographers: portraits of suburban mediocrity by Bill Owens; the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and corporate life by Chauncey Hare; the revolution against the American way of life in Nicaragua by Susan Meiselas; and the homelessness resulting from deindustrialization in the Midwest by Michael Williamson.

Guimond effectively interweaves earlier points into subsequent discussions and excels at describing material not illustrated within the book. Indiana occasionally enters the discourse, as in the December, 1940, photoessay in Life, "A Small Town's Saturday Night," featuring Franklin.

Completing the book is like awakening from a lucid yet discomforting dream. Guimond offers no conclusions, leaving the reader to interpret the visual and verbal imagery he presents. What Guimond does offer, however, is proof that photographs, as representations of life, are a means of self-evaluation when lifted above the limitations of mere illustration.

STEPHEN J. FLETCHER is curator of Visual Collections, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.