Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America 1890-1950
ISBN 13: 9780521324410
Publisher: Cambridge Univ Pr
Publication Date: 1989
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The documentary style that dominates American photography had its origins in the social reform publicity campaigns of the turn of the century. This book traces the history of this genre and its main participants, including Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Russell Lee. In order to emphasize the continuity of documentary codes and conventions, the author examines four major reform campaigns: Jacob Riis' anti-tenement work of the 1890s, the Tenement House Exhibition of 1900, the Pittsburgh Survey of 1907-14, and the Farm Security Administration's Photography Project of 1935-43. She also discusses the spectacular photography exhibitions curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s and 1950s and proposes a compelling and controversial thesis: that documentary photography was the tool of a centralized bureaucracy of government and business, even as its practitioners struggled to produce what John Dewey called Symbols of ideal life. Until television usurped forever photography's place among the media, documentary photography was the central means of communicating social facts to a mass audience.
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