Silver Cities

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Peter Bacon Hales. Silver Cities: Photographing American Urbanization, 1839-1939. Albuquerque, N.M.:University of New Mexico Press. 2005. (rev) pp. 528. $29.95. Cloth: ISBN 0826331785 ISBN 978-0826331786



Silver Cities takes as its starting point a historical truism, that photography is a powerful medium that had a tremendous influence especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hales uses this book to trace the history of photography as a form of ‘engagement’ and as a chronicle of American attitudes about city living. (7) From its early onset, urban photography served as a technological miracle, a cradle of the art, a promotional tool, an artistic outlet, a record of daily living, a documentary form and a social political force.

Hales argues that photography and cities serve as a unique middle ground of analysis because the two phenomenon developed and matured over the same period, mutually reinforcing and shaping one another. Throughout this one hundred year period four broad stages of the city and photography emerged – development from 1839 to 1865 with the creation of the first major cities and daguerreotype photo technology; maturity from 1865 to 1893 with the rise of larger cities with City Beautiful ideal as captured and reinforced by the Grand Style of urban photography; transformation from 1890 to 1915 which saw a focus on the social ills and need for reform within the city through the work of Progressivism and Jacob Riis’ reform photography; and diffusion from 1915 to 1939 where in the expansion and diversification of the city as well as the decline of the photographic medium as an unquestioned source of truth combined to mean that photographs could no longer capture the whole essence of a city.

Hale uses the 250 photographs to create a visual record that underscores his argument – that the photographer has an inherent advantage in shaping the photographs, however, the visual record still stands alone and can be mined by historians for many uses. The photographs all have extensively researched provenance and his sources draw from publications and archival materials, especially period photographic magazine, guides and trade journals. In nearly 500 pages, Hales shows how photography conquered the city moving from novelty to necessity.


Alan S. Brody, Fall, 2011

Hales is especially strong in linking photography to individuals, from lesser known African American Joseph Judd Pennell to reformers like Jacob Riis. It was the ability of the photograph to portray a version of reality along with new printing techniques that allowed for its explosive growth and acceptance. Historian Alan Trachtenberg reminds us that photography was vital in helping Americans rethink their physical world and their relationship to it and Hales claims the city as a unique site of this interaction, which he calls a ‘discursive practice’. This book is essential in understanding how imagery was created, manipulated, presented, critiqued and engaged in the urban environment. Urban photography was done for a specific purpose and the physical environment and its inhabitants were both equally worthy subjects. Silver Cities works hard to remind us that when photographic evidence is available, it must also do useful work for historians. The useful work is not just in analyzing the image; rather it is making the connections to the other rhetorical forms present in society across all media. A very important work, it is very approachable and clearly written and absolutely haunting in its photographic selections.

This work truly encompasses many genres and serves as the flag bearer in a long parade of books detailing how photography invented America. Elspeth B. Brown in The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture 1884-1929 makes the point that photography served as evidence of progress in the workplace and as a tool for an emerging consumer culture. As David Henken and others remind us, visual culture was everywhere and as Hales points out, images of the city were the source of civic pride. Photographs were entangled with notions of progress and modernity, for example, photography at the 1892 World’s Fair helped promote that the City Beautiful movement. Utopian visions aside, it is important to see photography as a technology which is controlled and manipulated by the artist and this helped invent the muckraking tradition of photojournalism. This where the evidence is at its strongest, Hales examines trends to look for broad patterns, which he labels development, maturity, transformation and diffusion. (7) These are also metaphors for changing attitudes about the city and this also shapes the narrative.

Urban photography as a subject fits nicely in chronological order and the book is weighted as it should be to emphasize the nineteenth century. Hales never strays far from the technology and technique and the text and notes reflect his abundant knowledge. Analyzing o early moving images or a link to online content, could reveal a great deal about how the city was portrayed. A timeline of events would also add tremendously to the text to help reconcile technology with major historical events and the working dates for some of the important photographers. This book challenges some existing notions of what photography meant and to whom, its usefulness comes in reminding us that this was medium filed with meanings but used in an urban context for a specific point and purpose.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall, 2012

One of the great strengths of this book comes from Hales use of his photographic sources. Throughout the period studied from 1839 to 1939 Hales shows how Americans believed photographs represented unbiased fact. Though this could be seen as a weakness of the sources instead Hales shows how this makes the photographs all the more impactful because the images captured and the reaction to these images gives us a profound understanding about what Americans thought about themselves and their cities. He also successfully shows how photographers and their images shaped American culture and did not simply reflect this culture.

However, in looking at urban photographs as a way to look at urban development Hales seems to be reading these sources in a deterministic way. It is not clear from the outset of daguerreotype photo studios in San Francisco for example that a majority of Americans will live in cities by the middle of the next century, but Hales none the less reads these developments with that march of ‘progress’ in mind.

I also felt that for a book about photographs and photographers that Hales choices of images were suspect. He often described photographs and their significance without showing them to the reader, as was the case with Dorthea Lange’s “Bread Line” series. (page 459) Perhaps the greatest weakness however of Hales’ work is that after completing it I am not sure why he wrote it at all. The work seems to simply catalog changes in photography and cities that developed alongside one another without challenging our understanding of these periods. He is trying to argue that photographs reflect and shape the times which they portray, but I do not think that this is a new or thought provoking idea. So despite finding the images interesting, overall I found “Silver Cities” to be unnecessary.

Alex Bradshaw, Fall 2012

Hales uses photographs to interpret the history of urban America from the middle nineteenth to middle twentieth century. He argues that, as the entire country was moving toward urbanization, the growth of American cities mirrored the growth of photographic technology; the latter not only being in step with the growth of the former, but also documenting it.

Like any piece of historical documentation, a photograph is subject to uses and interpretations that are constantly in flux. The effect that it has on its audience is governed by the cultural context at any time from the moment of the photograph’s creation to the present moment in which it is being viewed. Hale begins this book with the popular tradition of using photographs as tools for civic boosterism efforts; they represented various key points in cities, and occasionally panoramas of entire cities, to demonstrate the cities’ value and features to residents and to outsiders. Early urban photogrphaers frequently included areas that would present prosperity, would appear attractive, and would illustrate the cities’ modernity, excluding places and subjects that were poor, dirty, or otherwise un-ideal. Also missing from these photographs were people. Hale suggests that, with the people absent from the photographs, cities were offered to the viewers as places in which there was plenty of room and opportunity for visitors and new residents; places in which they were sure to feel welcomed.

Early urban photography also represented the ideals that local elites hoped that their cities would achieve, as the “White City” of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair exemplified in the most grandiose way. The photos taken of the White City illustrate industrial and technological advancement, just as they document the growth of the buildings themselves. As with other urban photographs, these images were frequently devoid of people, again suggesting that these were spaces waiting to be filled, even after the World’s fair began and the buildings were filled with visitors (again implying growth). Hale points out that only one photographer came close to documenting the rapid decline of the White City after the fair ended, communicating a sense of abandonment and abuse of the city

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Hales presents an interesting chronology of two simultaneous movements: the development of photography and the rise of the urban environment. Hales’s purpose is to observe “the creation, flowering, transformation, and then disintegration of a major mode of photographic practice and urban self-definition: the rise and fall of urban photography as a privileged, separate discursive practice” (p. 8). By 1939 the expansiveness of urban centers had grown beyond the capabilities of photographic lenses to effectively capture their scope, but until that point, Hales tracks the methods of urban development and photographic practices to show “the revolution of American attitudes toward the city as revealed in an evolving medium” (p. 7).

Photographic technology presented an economic opportunity for entrepreneurs to capture western cities as worthy sites of settlement, as “transformers of their culture and generators of a new culture,” and to serve as “explorers along a cultural frontier” (p. 3). Certainly the works of men like Robert Vance who used images to “celebrate San Francisco as part of a larger trend – the climax of the progress of American empire westward across the continent and…toward the globe” helped create a national image of progress. Hales also describes the novelty of the mobile photographic studio as a means of social uplift for men and women like James Presley Ball or Jules Lion who sought financial gain. Shifting photographic studies westward also enabled the process of spreading cultural values of aesthetics along the frontier. In the cities during the grand style period, photographers imitating European artistic styles attempted to “apply the conventions of cultivated European architectural, scenic, and view photographers; and at the same time to forge a visual style that was different, a national style appropriate to American exceptionalism” (p. 128).

Competing visions that “celebrated a new merchant prince economy and social system” versus those that “sought to democratize urban photography and use it to claim the rights of the propertied in a mass-consumer market” created new genres of photographic prints during the Gilded Age (p. 148). Photographers also used the medium to celebrate artistic and engineering progress while social reformers like Jacob Riis created images that urged social reform through images that served as a “medium of proof” (p. 308). Hales brings the images of reformers to light and how these images were used to persuade action, to inform of situation, to assuage guilt, or to confirm prejudicial stereotypes. Hales highlights the work of Lewis Hine and the Pittsburg Survey as an example of how photography “stood at the juncture of two modes of urban picture making: between a photography that unearthed facts, providing raw material for directives informed by an outside ideology, and a photography of sensibility, in which the camera and the resulting pictures served as the means of creating mastery over an urban sphere so massive and headlong that its momentum could not be shifted by individual or even collective action” (p. 432).

Hales argues that photographers not only catalogued the rise of urban built environments, but also provided commentary on the social results. Poverty, child labor, immigrant stereotyping, racial pride competed for recognition alongside rising towers of engineering progress and artistic symbols of European and increasing American design values. Hales’s ability to take the role of the camera beyond the eastern seaboard metropolis to include its role in the westward movement places the image of the urban center as a national phenomenon rather than an east coast privilege. Hales provides examples of photographers like James VanDerZee and the African American community in Harlem who offered a “composite Negro identity that celebrated the power and dignity of the individual, the family, the clan, the neighborhood, the large-scale institutions of cultural identity, and the race itself” rather than images that focus more on immigrant subjects or buildings (p. 450). By including a broad range of photographers from various economic, regional, and racial backgrounds, Hales expands the visions that photographers of the era captured through their work. If any critique were to be leveled against the work, it would be in reference to the photos included from published sources that were taken out of context from the original captions, essays, or narratives so that the original interpretations and uses of the images are left to the current historian to decipher. Still, considering the vast amount of resources and the temporal and geographical scope of the work, Peter Bacon Hales presents an impressive study of photography and urban built environments.

Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Hales' use of the history of photography as a complementary narrative and source base for the history of urban development was groundbreaking when the book was originally published in 1984. His efforts to demonstrate how photographs could be used as primary sources of investigation, and not merely illustrations, for cultural history work are to be commended. This is not to say that the book is without weaknesses, however. The narratives of rise and decline, reinforced by what he sees as the four periods of urban photography history (development, maturity, transformation, and decline) are not as neat as he portrays them. His choice to follow a standard narrative of (predominantly white and male) Great Photographers, with Jacob Riis as the central figure and pivot point, also geographically skews the study toward the Northeast and California. The one notable exception, which reads as a token gesture, is a two page description of Jules Lion's work in New Orleans. By focusing on the more successful and/or independently wealthy photographers, Silver Cities frames photographic production mainly as the artistic and moral imperative of the photographer. Even Alice Austin, the sole woman photographer discussed at any length, falls into this category as one who was "sheltered by her grandparents' comfortable means" and "spent her childhood in a sort of decisive isolation from the dangers and lures of Manhattan" (366).

My main question after reading the book was what is his definition of urban photograhy? He seems to have had a narrow conception of street views, panoramas, and slum scenes as his ideal--but this overlooks the connections between these kinds of images and other kinds of photographic images (landscapes, genre works, formal portraits in studio and on site) that would have enriched his interpretation. The first two chapters that deal with photography pre-Jacob Riis are the particularly uneven. Hales' implies an incompleteness and inadequacy of early photographs, and lack of expertise for early photographers, that does a disservice to how these same photographers often pushed innovation in composition and the technology, and the cultural contexts in which the images were conceived, produced, disseminated, and viewed. By not examining occupational portraits and even studio portraits, he also misses an opportunity to lay the foundation for the character studies he finds so important in Riis' later work. The images Hales mentions in these earlier chapters--Theodore Lilenthal's 150 print portfolio of New Orleans, Watkins' panoramas, the work of Southworth and Hawes--are not the "mass-produced and mass-disseminated urban photography" that he discusses starting with Chapter Four (the 1893 Columbian Exposition) to the end of the book. The result is that the first two chapters flounder a bit until the narrative and argument comes together much more strongly in Chapter Four.

Some problems also arise from Hales' need to amend and expand on his original text. He admits in the preface to the re-release that the initial publication lacked discussions of "mass-market reproduction, high-art insularity, government sponsorship, and the diminishing place of the individual studio practice," (xvii) along with the work of women and minorities throughout, but his attempts to incorporate these discussions are haphazard. At best, there are a few more names. At worst, the additions are jarring and confusing. One example is the brief aside to discuss Joshua Brown's work on the illustrated press during the Gilded Age on page 284; since Hales basically ignored the relationship between photography, engraving, and lithography up to this point, he merely reinforcing his own notions about the "roughness" of photography during the development period. Overall, however, despite these oversights, what Hales did best was to demonstrate how photography can be more than illustrations or simple evidence for historical research, and how a study using visual materials can shape different stories about the past.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

Silver Cities, a massive book filled with around 250 images, examines photography and the photographers at the turn of the 20th century. Since this work was originally published in 1984, there has since been an expanded edition published in 2005. One issue with the revised book is that although Hales claims to include gender, race, and ethnicity, his attempts feel tacked on since his primary focus in the original work was white male photographers. The book is split into four significant parts--development, maturity, transformation, and diffusion—which traces urban photography through the late 19th century to the late 1930s.

Hales argues that the photographers reflected and altered the culture of the cities, and that urban photography itself served as a vehicle for change. He also argues that photographers were messengers who reflected and defined how Americans saw these cities. Lastly, and he argues most significantly, these photographers helped Americans and American culture adjust to urbanization. For example, Hales states “[the photographers] gave Americans a visual history of their cities while simultaneously making the city a fit subject for American history. They advertised and celebrated change, most fundamentally the transformation of America from a rural and agrarian nation to an urban and industrial one.” (4)

Some of the strengths of this work is Hales does indicate that he had to consider the audience for the images when viewing them, as they were not always the same audience. This significant piece of information allows historians to understand what the photograph says more than the photo on its own. He also states that these photos were made for profit, which again would indicate the audience of the images. While considering the original publication date, it is significant to understand the methodology used in Silver Cities, where photographs serve as the most important primary source. This is useful as a seminal source that utilizes the images themselves as the main primary source base. This book fits into cultural, urban, and technological histories.

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