Notes On A Wisconsin Ego Trip

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LESY CALLS HIS latest book Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860–1945 . Elsewhere he says it is a “composite portrait of the United States” between those years. What it really is is a collection of miscellaneous photographs from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Pentagon divided up into eighteen more or less arbitrary categories—“Misfortunes,” “Child Labor and Strikes,” “Farm Life,” “World War Two: Europe.”

The author likes to explain how very difficult his books are to do: putting together Wisconsin Death Trip , for example, was like “driving a tunnel through a granite mountain to the sea.” And in describing the process by which he assembled Bearing Witness , he cites some impressive statistics. He would work in Washington, he says, eight hours a day, five days a week, and each week he viewed seventy thousand pictures. That comes to 29.2 images per minute by my reckoning, or one every two seconds all day long; no lunch; no bathroom. That’s some pace, and even Lesy feels compelled to explain just how he did it; he has, it seems, a special ability that enables him to “pass through a kind of boredom, caused by fatigue, into a state of wakeful dreaming during which one is both alert and passive, as during actual sleep.”

We want facts, but facts don’t interest Lesy much.

But there’s another way of looking at his statistics: there are only 287 pictures in the book, many of them familiar. No research at all went into the terse captions; each was copied verbatim from the library files, errors and all. Since the author devoted eighteen weeks to assembling the book, that adds up to 3.2 photographs chosen and captioned per day—not bad for wakeful dreaming, I suppose.

Nor does Lesy do much interpreting of the pictures this time around. We are supposed to do it on our own, and if all goes well, “your idle glance will become a look, your look a gaze, your gaze a thought, and your thought the first of many about how this country came to inhabit its place in time.”

My own thoughts never got that elevated. I wondered instead why a stereo view of a dead Hindu awaiting cremation in India is here identified as a victim of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Or what a reader who doesn’t happen to remember what Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champion, looked like will make of a picture of him on his farm in that same year. It appears here—in the “Industry and Agriculture” section—labeled simply “The Undefeated.” Later, public clamor would force Jeffries to leave his fields and try to win back the title from the new black champion, Jack Johnson. Without knowing that, this is just a picture of a big farmer sitting on his plow.

We long to know more about the best of these pictures. We want facts, but facts don’t interest Lesy much.

In this book the author’s old mentor, Professor Susman of Rutgers, takes up the imaginative slack. It is his preface and not Lesy’s introduction that explains an unexceptional group portrait by Alexander Gardner of seven rumpled Union officers near their general’s tent on the Antietam battlefield. “Virtually every face,” says Susman, “appears mad, driven insane, haunted by horror.” Well they might have been: twenty-two thousand men had fallen at Antietam three days earlier on the bloodiest day of the war. But in fact they just look tired.

A few pages farther along there is a crisp, straightforward view of a Marine officer, made by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1900. He seems a pleasant open-faced young man, a little stiff in front of the lens, perhaps, and possibly one-armed (his left sleeve looks empty, though one can’t be certain). None of this seems to interest Susman; instead he discerns within this portrait “a seemingly enormous black spot, a hole of darkness without end.” “How many dark spots,” he continues, “are there at the very heart of these American pictures Lesy presents?”

In trying to win the confidence of the amateur photographers whose pictures he reproduced in Time Frames , Lesy says he assured each that “I can read a picture the way some people can read the palm of a hand.”

Exactly.