History of American Photography

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Photography-as a commercial, popular, and artistic medium-has played a role in Americans' perception of their world; it has both expressed and channeled social change. In photographs, Americans discovered themselves in unpredictable and surprising ways, connected with different periods and social contexts as well as new technologies. Photography cannot be understood as a timeline of formal styles and schools; instead one must look at photography's multiple meanings in various social and cultural contexts over time. Photographs are read as contemporary or historical documents; on the other hand, they are regarded as works of creativity addressing aesthetic and philosophical problems. Between and around these notions of photography lie family snapshots, fashion photographs, propaganda, pornography, postcards, and photojournalism. Each photograph contains the evidence and imprint of both the photographic event (with its actors, setting, equipment, and interactions) and the visual event in which the image is viewed. While individual images have become symbols and icons of American culture and history, photography, like subsequent generations of film and video, mimics or captures what is before the lens, thereby emphasizing the documentary or truth-telling functions over the interpretive and symbolic dimensions of traditional arts such as painting and sculpture.

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