Seeing America

In 1995 historian Gerda Lerner challenged feminist theorists to embrace the narrative form and tell flesh- and-blood stories of real women. Lerner’s vision was of a future time when American history would be as much about women’s history as men’s history. Melissa A. McEuen shares this perspective, and Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars is a useful building block to that end. It focuses on five innovators who depicted arresting scenes of rural, small-town, and urban America and whose work also articulated visions of the collective possibilities of modern life. Life magazine’s Margaret Bourke-White and the Farm Security Administration’s Dorothea Lange were better known than McEuen’s other three subjects, Doris Ulmann, Marion Post Wolcott, and Berenice Abbott. Each had a somewhat different artistic aesthetic and social philosophy, yet all were idealists rooted in realism and very much attuned to the role of context in the dissemination of their ideas and ideals.

The purpose of documentary photography, critic Elizabeth McCausland wrote in 1939, was “the profound and sober chronicling of the external world.” In their own way, Ulmann, Lange, Wolcott, Bourke-White, and Abbott all did their part in portraying the social ills and also the dignity of common people during times of hardship. Solidly researched, Seeing America succeeds in conveying to the reader the remarkable intellectual curiosity and wherewithal of these women, as evidenced by the vibrancy and variety of their work. University Press of Kentucky deserves praise for interspersing photographs throughout the text.

Recommended, for aspiring photographers and all serious students of American history.