Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography


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Photography and Autobiography

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Professions of Childhood in the Arts and Public Policy of 1940s New York

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Picturing Ourselves

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Even though they were called visiting card photographs, they were not stringently used as such. People were far more likely to buy, trade, and collect them than to leave them on the silver tray inside the front door. Nevertheless, Rugg animates the discussion of turn-of-the-century photographs showing Twain in bed by bringing in psychoanalytic perspectives beyond the reach of antiquarians.

Her speculation that Twain was restaging a recurrent nightmare in order to gain control of his fear is stated too confidently, given that we are not privy to the workings of the inner life of another.

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Still, the hypothesis grants to Twain and the photographs an intriguing psychological complexity. He proposed opening a photographic studio in Berlin, where he would telepathically draw out hidden features of personality in unsuspecting sitters. By he had developed a Wunderkamera, which would take photographs of the face at full scale. In this section, Rugg moves away from the use of actual photographs to consider the literary creation of photographic effects.

In the close reading that follows, Rugg speculates on the double nature of autobiography and the impressions that photography has made on the consciousness of writers. This chapter, like the others, makes technical mistakes about photography, most notably the statement that daguerreotypes could not be reproduced. Daguerreotypes of daguerreotypes and paper photographs of daguerreotypes were not uncommon. Regardless, it offers worthwhile insights to critics, as well as photographic and art historians.

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In Kindheitsmuster Patterns of Childhood , Wolf explores childhood memories of Nazi Germany through remembered images of a family album lost when the Soviet army was advancing near the end of the war. Like Benjamin, Wolf engages the truth of subjective memory, in this case of the images in the lost album, and pitches it against more objective sources, like newspapers and other historical documents. This chapter, like the others, swoons in its overreading of photographic history, while it raises important questions about how human visual memory may have come to resemble photographs as the medium proliferated in the 20th century.

Picturing Ourselves is dense going, especially for those not willing to wrangle with critical theory. It suffers from a lack of historical accuracy and gives insufficient attention to scholarly treatments of photography in literature and studies of the interaction of word and image that could have enriched its observations.

Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography

Yet it must be a applauded for its reach, if not its grasp. Perhaps someday photographic history will be as audacious as the photographers it studies.


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Please send comments about this review to editor. A Publication of the College Art Association. Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies. Recent Books in the Arts.

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