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Notes On A Wisconsin Ego Trip

July 2024
5min read

PICTURES LIE . Or they can be made to lie. Joseph McCarthy knew that, and so do all the lesser propagandists with products or political causes to sell.

Historians know it, too, and for a very long time too many of them used old pictures selectively to portray a relentlessly cheerful American past that never was. The oversize shelves of every library are filled with nostalgic picture books in which our parents and our grandparents and their parents come off as quaint and dear; less shrewd, somehow, than we are; admirable, maybe, but awfully naive and fit only to live in their clean, untroubled, slow-paced world. The cliché had it that our ancestors lived in “simpler times.”

All of this is nonsense, of course. Times were never simple. And ever since the turbulence and disillusionment of the 1960s, the chastened compilers of picture histories have tried hard to restore the balance, to include the seamy and the painful as well as the sunny aspects of our past.

The curious career of Michael Lesy, whose fourth book, Bearing Witness , has recently been published, shows that the new sort of pictorial history can be just as misleading as the old.

His first and best-known book, Wisconsin Death Trip , was published just ten years ago, but it already has become a historical artifact: within its pages the sensibilities of the sixties are perfectly preserved. At a time when we were eager to believe the worst about ourselves, Lesy was happy to oblige. The supposedly idyllic turn-of-the-century small town had been the special favorite of an earlier generation of pictorial historians. Wisconsin Death Trip sought to show that such places were actually “charnel houses and the counties that surrounded them … places of dry bones.” The main ingredient in this strange stew of distorted fact and unconvincing fiction is a collection of some two hundred uncaptioned photographs of the people of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, made between 1890 and 1910 by an unusually able town photographer, Charles Van Schaick. The author shrewdly chose each for its power to disturb the modern eye: memorial portraits of coffined children are prominently featured (one is used twice); so are pictures in which the sitter is clearly uneasy before the camera or physically distorted in some way (there are four portraits of the same doubleamputee). A spurious historical context for the pictures is provided by lurid snippets from the local press (epidemics, suicides, and barn burnings are emphasized), as well as excerpts from madhouse records, passages from writers such as Sinclair Lewis and Hamlin Garland, who loathed small-town life, and the words of two “mythical creatures” whom Lesy simply invented. There are also collages made by the author using portions of Van Schaick’s pictures, rearranged, he says, to “emphasize emotions and elaborate meanings” the photographer failed to make clear in the originals.

This weird book proves nothing and has little to do with serious history. An equally persuasive (and equally fraudulent) book could quickly be compiled to prove that Black River Falls was paradisiacal, using Van Schaick’s cheerier pictures—there are three thousand to choose from at the Wisconsin State Historical Society—along with newspaper editorials celebrating Thanksgiving and passages from the amiable novels of Booth Tarkington. Nonetheless Wisconsin Death Trip won Lesy a Ph.D. from the history department of Rutgers University, and professor Warren I. Susman of that department wrote an admiring preface for it when it was published.

Lesy next turned his attention to the American city. In Real Life (1976), a portrait of Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1920s, he used similar techniques—good photographs (culled from the files of the commercial firm of Caulfield and Shook) combined with a grab bag of unrelated clippings and official records—in order to provide what he called “evidence of a city culture whose willful manipulation of facts, confusion of people with objects, and minute-by-minute recording of fabricated events differs greatly from the matter-of-fact, human-centered, and seasonally paced farm town culture that had preceded it.” The descendants of the maligned dead of Black River Falls should take heart; life in the old charnel house back home may not have been so bad after all.

In his third book, Time Frames (1980), Lesy reprinted scores of ordinary family snapshots, together with transcripts of long tape-recorded monologues by the people who made them. The result is as stultifying as an after-dinner slide show, but it provides Lesy with an opportunity to explain to us the deeper meanings that only he can see in these clumsy but evocative images. Even Freud confessed that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not Lesy. A fuzzy picture of a woman in a bathing suit standing on a beached rowboat turns out to be ripe with meaning; the boat, “its prow pointing between [the woman’s] legs toward the sea, is itself a symbol of the uterus.” Double-exposures and light flares are equally “amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation.” When one of Lesy’s amateurs took two pictures of his wife and first child on the occasion of the baby’s christening, he failed to advance the film between them. The blurred overlapping result was no accident, Lesy says; the proud father was subconsciously creating a mandala, “an optical and psychological projection of great emotional and religious intensity.”

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.”


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