Martha A. Sandweiss

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Picture Stories: Photography, Popular Culture and the Nineteenth-Century West

In Picture Stories: Photography, Popular Culture and the Nineteenth Century West, SAR resident scholar Martha A. Sandweiss traces public reaction to the emerging medium of photography as it documented the exploration of the American west. “Today, it’s so easy to say, ‘Photography instantly changed the way people understood everything,’ but I want to argue that it took a long time for viewers to embrace and accept it,” said Sandweiss.

Her book follows photography’s early forms, such as daguerreotypes, as they entered into a crowded field of 19th century illustration that included drawings, paintings, lithographs, topographical drawings, and engravings. Compared to these narrative and fictive views that reconfirmed existing cultural beliefs, Sandweiss contends, the static literalism of daguerreotypes —unique images on small metal plates —was uninteresting to a public hungry for exciting stories of America’s expanding presence in the west.

As technology advanced through the negative and half-tone processes, photographs could be printed on paper and published, and —perhaps most importantly —words could be attached to them, allowing photography to become a more narrative medium that could compete, for instance, with the popular illustrated dime novels of the time.

Sandweiss asserts that the practices of collecting and the selective use of images by historians, anthropologists, and art historians have obscured the original visual and literary narratives created by 19th century photographers, whose work was typically assembled in albums or viewed in a series of images rather than as a single photograph displayed on a museum wall.

“I want to rehistoricize photography and ask: in the 19th century, how would you have encountered this image, and how would you have understood it? These images were parts of complex arguments about ‘manifest destiny,’ about the necessity of westward expansion, and about the necessary disappearance of native cultures. I think that context has been lost by many present researchers,” says Sandweiss.

Drawing on more than fifteen years of archival research in historical societies, libraries, and museums, Picture Stories will be the first broadly conceived overview that historicizes 19th century photography and examines how it gained cultural authority depicting the lands and peoples of the American West. Sandweiss teaches American studies and history at Amherst College.

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of American Studies and History, Amherst College

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