Clear all

Photo-History's curious nationalism


Andrés Zervigón
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 4
Topic starter  

Hi Maggie. What a fascinating and well articulated talk. I've learned a great deal from it, and from the questions and your answers below. Here's another query that I'd like to add: can you expand a little more on the category of what appears to be left-nationalism in Photo-History? The way you explain it, I get the sense that Child's was mixing nationalism and socialism in a potentially toxic brew, as the two words together might suggest. I understand that he was trying in some sense to domesticate left politics for an American audience. But the nationalism somehow stinks to my senses. It might help explain a curious montage cut in the upper-right photo in the "Pie in the sky" spread. What should be a long column of strikers marching with flags carried at the front is in fact two images thrown into one, the flag-wielding figures having been spliced in. Might this suggest his strange montage of two somewhat incompatible ideologies, an odd fit realized in this unwieldy montage? Also, I see that the price of the magazine when down two cents from its inaugural issue to its last one. This also strikes me as curious.

Thanks for such an exciting paper.

Margaret Innes
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 8

Hi Andrés, and thank you so much for listening to my talk. You have my heartfelt thanks for your time and for these sharp insights, which have helped me rethink this material from new angles.

I am fascinated by the montage cut you see in the strike image at top right in the "Pie" layout. The caption describes it as textile workers demonstrating in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but the image source is unclear (based on editors' acknowledgments, corporate picture services and historical societies are the two most likely contenders). At present, the image is licensed by Getty (as part of its Bettmann Archive), but it also pops up in the digital archives of the Lawrence History Center, which dates it to 1912 (the year of the famous Bread and Roses strike). In both the Getty and LHC files, a snowy foreground seems to account for some of the detail loss around the strikers' feet, but I agree with you that the horizontal disposition of the flag bearers and the depth of the procession create a strangely disjunctive effect. I would obviously love to hear your thoughts on this if you have them! Above all, though, I think your observation underscores the need to integrate sustained image research into the analysis of narrative structure and political ideology in photo pictorials. 

With regard to the question of left-nationalism, I would agree with your assessment of Photo History's unwieldy visual politics, but I would also situate this politics within the broader contexts of (a) New America's economic plan to implement social ownership of the economy alongside a free market; (b) other antifascist nationalisms of the interwar period; and (c) postwar ties between left-wing nationalism and decolonization. This is obviously a huge, complex question, and as I said in my talk, I've found Eric Hobsbawm and Étienne Balibar to offer the most illuminating models for thinking through it. Hobsbawm in particular discusses the wider emergence of antifascist nationalism between the World Wars, going so far as to describe it as a variant of internationalism (Nations and Nationalism since 1780), and as I mentioned, the CPUSA also participated in this radical nationalist turn in the mid-1930s. But for me, the contradiction in New America's program, which I also see manifested in Photo-History's visual program, is the cultivation of an anti-capitalist economic agenda in the absence of an anti-imperialist social agenda; or rather, an anti-capitalism that accommodates the structural logic and institutions of settler colonialism. White chauvinism was/is a major issue for the CPUSA too, and W.E.B. Du Bois offers a trenchant critique of the way the party intervened in the infamous Scottsboro case in the early 1930s. But unlike the CPUSA, which had foregrounded antiracism and interracial coalition building in its agit-prop since the turn of the decade, New America (and Photo-History) really didn't engage with this facet of American history or radical organizing. And this, as you say, stinks.

In terms of the price change from 35 to 25 cents (I promise I'm wrapping up!), I think this shift makes more sense when we consider it within the framework of Modern Age Book's overall cost structure. The publisher's initial plan was to price all books at 25, 35, and 50 cents (based on word count) and distribute them at newsstands, drug stores, and similar outlets (book stores played a very small role in this initial plan, as their urban concentration was seen as a barrier to accessibility). The principle here was that lower prices would encourage a higher volume of sales. The initial 35 cent cover price for Photo-History falls right in the middle of this three-tiered plan (although it was sold at a lower bulk rate to labor unions), and also makes sense in relation to comparably-sized periodicals (Photo-History was about the same size as Vogue, which also sold for 35 cents at this time). But Photo-History had no advertising revenue, and I suspect that the price drop after the first issue reflects the logic of the publisher's lower price/higher sales model, although they ultimately found this model unsustainable. I suppose the short answer (after all that) is that Photo-History's changing price reflects a publishing gambit that never paid off. This seemed to be a common issue for pictorials targeting a national market; Life reportedly lost $3,424,000 its first year and required a huge transfusion of capital to keep going, and many of the smaller magazines that followed on its heels weren't around for very long.

Thank you again, Andrés, for these perceptive questions!