Camera Americana

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Camera Americana

Classic Photography

Good photographers document the people and events, both large and small, that encompass our shared history.

Here are collections by just a few photographers who captured twentieth-century America, in that long-ago time of yore before Instagram and selfies. To discover more, come into the library and browse the books with the call number 779.

400 Photographs (2007) by Ansel Adams
Yes, everyone's seen an Adams print of Yosemite on a guidance counselor's inspirational poster. This compilation covers six decades of Adams's work, which are, beyond their artistic value, foundational artifacts of the modern day conservation movement. For more on his life and work in his own words, check out Ansel Adams, an Autobiography.   

Slightly Out of Focus (1947) by Robert Capa
This hybrid text is an "illustrated memoir" that gives the front-line photojournalist's perspective as he documented the European theater in World War II for Collier's magazine. The scope of Capa's coverage is incredible and surprisingly intimate. He photographed injured soldiers on the battlefield, Parisian shopkeepers standing at their door with shotguns at the ready, funerals, celebrations, and even Ernest Hemingway, recovering in a London hospital. 

Capa actually photographed five different wars, which are all covered in Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa.

American Photographs (1938) by Walker Evans
Originally published in 1938 to accompany an exhibit at MoMA, American Photographs is one of the first collection of American photographs that is intended to be "read" sequentially, like a story: Evans wanted readers to view the photos in page order to get the full experience of the implied narrative.

Evans's work in American Photographs is a landmark because he combines documentary photography with the Modernist aesthetic of the day. Evans is one of the most important figures in American photography.  After American Photographs, he would team up with James Agee to create Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which is a classic (and early) creative nonfiction work about tenant farmers.

The Americans (1958) by Robert Frank
The layout and subject matter of Frank's chronicle of post-war America was modeled after American Photographs. Although Walker Evans was a mentor to Frank, the shift in styles between American Photographs and The Americans reflected the shift in art movements between the years each book was published. Photographs in The Americans are blurry, grainy, and capture movement. They participate in the chaotic ethos of American 1950s counterculture, evidenced by Jack Kerouac's oh-so-Beat introduction.  

Photographs of a Lifetime (1982) by Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange is best known for her chronicles of the Great Depression. Lange's photos are emotionally moving and show a diverse range of people, from white Dust Bowl migrants to Filipino farm workers, to "Ex-Slave with Long Memory, Alabama, 1937." Lange depicted the struggles of family and personal toil during an era of widespread hardship. The connection Lange made with her subjects is well-known, as she was famous for only taking photos of the willing. Lange's photos are must-see for anyone with an interest in the history of labor and migration in America.

A Way of Seeing (1965) by Helen Levitt
A Way of Seeing is a collection of Levitt's photography in New York neighborhoods. Levitt's work spans the late 1930s and 1940s, and captures a dangerous, frenetic, joyful intergenerational outdoor milieu that has long since disappeared. Photos show groups of boys play-fighting on a building overhang, small children surrounding the ice delivery man, old men sitting on wooden chairs on a cobblestone street. They are smart and caring photos of neighbors who personally interacted with each other every day. An influential work of street photography.  

Streetwise (1988) by Mary Ellen Mark

The original Streetwise was a film that followed a group of teenagers living on the streets of Seattle, chosen for its reputation as "America's most livable city" in 1983. Mark worked with her husband Martin Bell to forge relationships with these teens to show a bleak, defiant world that most cultural products of the 1980s ignored.

A sequel, Streetwise: Tiny Revisited, will be published in October 2015; it includes the original monograph as well as photos that follow one of the subjects over the course of the last 30 years. When Ms. Mark passed away in May 2015, she was a major figure in international documentary photography, and a master of the photo essay.

Bare Witness (2007) by Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks may be best known as the director of Shaft (1971), but his great artistic achievement was in photography, particularly in his photo essays for Life and Ebony magazines. Parks was a documentarian at the forefront of the Civil Rights MovementBare Witness is a posthumous survey that celebrates the astounding breadth and versatility of Parks's work, from his documentation of poverty for the Farm Services Administration to celebrity portraiture and fashion photography.

Posing Beauty (2009) by Deborah Willis
Willis is a renowned photographer in her own right, but this multi-artist collection, which recasts the dominant imagery of African Americans in America, is as "monumental" as the New York Times described. Willis's choices of photographs, her thematic collections, and her arrangements of photos interrogate how African American beauty is and has been constructed. Posing Beauty is a tour de force. You'll lose yourself in the photos as you appreciate the time, care and work by one of America's great cultural curators.

(Most of these artists have items in the Print and Photograph Online Catalog at the Library of Congress)