My dissertation, “Visualizing a Nation: Photographs, European Immigration, and American Identity, 1880-1980,” investigated how photographs have shaped public memory of the history of immigration to the United States through an analysis of the images of European immigrants that circulated widely between 1880 and 1980. I traced the changing meanings attached to these photographs to helps us to better understand the evolution of American concepts of racial identification, the emergence of a national identity as a “nation of immigrants,” and the impact of visual images on public understandings of the past.
During the era of mass immigration, roughly 1880-1920, photographs of European immigrants circulated widely in the popular illustrated press. After 1920, these historical images were reprinted in educational materials and textbooks, in government propaganda and advertisements, and in prominent museums. Until the 1930s, the photographs functioned primarily as documents of race. Since the 1930s, the same photographs have circulated within a rhetoric of pathos: they represented the humanity of all European immigrants who in turn became Americans, and also the freedoms and opportunities available in the United States. When these photographs entered the museum in the 1960s, they became nostalgic images of ancestors.
The changing rhetorical usage and context of presentation of these photographs supported the rise of the narrative of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” in three crucial ways. First, photographs enabled the concept of a shared immigrant heritage by visualizing an inclusive European-American identity emerging in the 1930s and 1940s. Second, photographs of European immigrants were deployed to confirm the greatness of the nation in the 1940s and 1950s. Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s, photographs affirmed the greatness of immigrants themselves.
By the late 1960s, photographs could support two distinct interpretations of immigration history: the official narrative that focused on the nation, or the vernacular narrative that emphasized the immigrants themselves. Yet in both versions, European immigrants struggled and ultimately triumphed. Photographs thus came to visualize a celebratory history of immigration in which European immigrants represent both the American people and the nation.
I currently am revising my dissertation into a manuscript tentatively titled Seeing a Nation of Immigrants: Photographs and the Making of American Identity.