Opening Cans of Worms
Most scholars and archivists interested in the history of American photography and the nature and value of photographs as historical evidence are familiar with the varied essays on these subjects by Alan Trachtenberg. In Trachtenberg’s new book, Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), he has conveniently assembled some of his most interesting analyses about photography, as well as some other of his literary excursions into the American past, previously published since the late 1960s.
Trachtenberg presents the book’s main theme as being concerned with the “verbal or visual artifacts that express the mingling of individual and collective consciousness at particular moments of U.S. history” (p. xii). In Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas there are essays on Walt Whitman, Horatio Alger, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Lewis Sullivan, Lewis Mumford, and the Brooklyn Bridge – all reflecting Trachtenberg’s wide-ranging interests in his scholarly endeavors – but those interested in archives will want the book for his discussion about still and moving images.
The reader will find essays on the daguerreotype, the relationship of photography and cinematography, Roy Stryker and the Farm Security Administration photographic files, Walker Evans and the South, W. Eugene Smith and Pittsburgh, and the work of Wright Morris. Throughout these essays there are interesting commentaries about the nature of photography. Trachtenberg indicates how the “daguerreotype offers a genuine mediation of a living presence” (p. 11). He sprinkles throughout the essays insights into the challenges of using photographs: “The problem of interpreting photographs is like opening a can of worms. It is hard to get a solid hold on it” (p. 112). In his essay on Stryker, Trachtenberg comments on how an “image is a kind of writing” (p. 266) and how even the filing system developed for the FSA photographs is one of the “cultural artifacts of the New Deal,” as it “represents ideas, a distinct view of society and history and human action” (p. 267). And even in the other essays about literature architecture, Trachtenberg brings the photographic image into the mix; when discussing Stephen Crane, he reflects: “Crane’s eye for detail, his ability to take in a scene and convey its sense, its contours, in a few telling strokes, suggest correspondence between his visual intentions and that of impressionist painters and photographers” (p. 190). In all these essays, Trachtenberg examines photographic images as something fixed or permanent, but as documents that are fluid, changing as we look at them in different times and places or with different purposes in mind.
Every page is like a location on a map guiding us into rethinking the American past, including some assessment that provokes a revisiting of a particular American artifact or icon. This is a worthwhile journey to embark on by anyone interested in the past and the evidence it leaves behind.