Reading photobooks: Narrative montage and the construction of modern visual literacy
This dissertation argues that mass-produced photobooks are a perceptual technique whose role in constructing modern visual culture has been under-examined. Popular across the political spectrum and produced as both documentary record and fine art object, photobooks are publications characterized by the careful sequencing and editing of photographic images in order to convey visual arguments. Because there has not been a rigorous examination of the process by which the public read photobooks and the underlying social, political, and aesthetic ramifications of this new construction of visual knowledge, my analysis involves an examination of the efforts to teach people how to read their ideological environment, as well as how texts and photographs took on ideological functions, working both to expand perception and constrain the boundaries of what we can know. In order to accomplish this, my project provides a new model for investigating the rise of modern photographic media by arguing that narrative montage, the analogical organization of photographic images and text, was not simply the underlying structure of photobooks, but was rather, a complex pedagogical device that instructed mass audiences to be visually literate. As an analogical process, narrative montage instructs readers to think about the myriad possibilities of meaning by spurring them to see similarity in dissimilarity.
Beginning with the pedagogical practices and models of visual communication Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy developed in Germany during the 1920s, I construct a careful analysis of his 1925 photobook Painting Photography Film. I then follow Moholy-Nagy as he moved from Germany to the United States and examine the translation of his writings and pedagogical practices from the Bauhaus to the New Bauhaus/Institute of Design in Chicago. By comparing Moholy-Nagy's significant role on the instruction of photography in the United States to the Museum of Modern Art's writing of the standard history of photography, I examine how photobooks were instrumental in constructing histories of photography. Working from this context, I then question how a wide variety of photobooks witnessed and produced "history," a process that often included the construction of national narratives.
0389: Interior design
0708: Mass media