From The Mason Historiographiki
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. 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.