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The Interdisciplinarity and Influence of Alan Trachtenberg

“But what do we mean by ‘American culture as a whole?’ We all use that easy expression, but can we say what it means? Let me remark that I, too, have suspicions about that word ‘coherence’. I’m very much in favour of disruptions and fractures that challenge all the given and established coherences of what is called ‘America’. Coherence and symmetry ring too much of tyranny and imperial power for my taste. But it’s not just for the sake of re-forming a new coherence that disruption is necessary. It may sound trite to say so but history is a discontinuous process, it moves by leaps and jolts, by cutting and slicing.” — Alan Trachtenberg

Among Trachtenberg’s greatest contributions to scholarship was undoubtedly his advocacy for the use of photographs as a form of historical evidence. His earliest work, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, a study of American Photography from 1839 to 1938, encouraged scholars to “read” images as historical artifacts and thus broadened what was possible in historical scholarship. It was not sufficient to simply explore the content of the photographs within one’s argument; rather, Trachtenberg suggested that the techniques and processes of photography could lend themselves to analyses of culture and cultural production writ broadly. As scholars look at the wealth of sources made available to them–either in person, through mass digitization, or via born-digital materials–they owe a debt to Trachtenberg who embraced the power of image analysis as evidence to base an argument.

It is perhaps now that his intellectual contributions have never been more prescient. He eloquently linked photographic evidence to sources drawn from social history, labor history, business history, and cultural history—a form of scholarly interdisciplinarity that reflected a broader view of American life than singular methodological exploration. Trachtenberg asked us to take seriously and interrogate the cultural, social, and political worlds that images reflected, circulated, and built. With the growth of mass media, particularly digital media, the importance of images whether still or moving as part of the historical record cannot be denied. Digitization and associated interdisciplinary methods that merge computational vision with humanistic analysis are increasing access to historical photos and their metadata and opening up new areas of study.  While computer vision algorithms enable formal analysis at scale, it is the interpretative capabilities of humanities questions that expand our understanding of the past. Network analysis, which models relationships between elements within the context of their creation, offers new ways of visualizing how images circulate. We can not only view the original image but we can model it within its geographical, ontological, and categorical frames as Tractenberg demonstrated.

Take for example, Tractenberg’s reading of the famed FSA-OWI photographs and the archival organization at the Library of Congress. In Documenting America: 1935-1943 Trachtenberg reminds us that the way we organize, classify, and access images shapes the histories that we tell. While analog organizational structures are often limited via archival protocols of item, folder, box, collection and the like, the turn towards digital forms of organization opens up the ability to not only recreate analog archival structures but to also remix those contents into new narrative and structural forms. Scholars can create their own organizational structures including digital collections and exhibits. They can also develop projects like Photogrammar, a web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing the 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI). With Photogrammar, colleagues Laura Wexler (Yale University), Lauren Tilton, and Taylor Arnold, have drawn directly on and extended Trachtenberg’s interdisciplinary analysis toward a dynamic interface. Users can map, visualize, and explore images and their metadata. It is possible to trace the entire catalog of a photographer, explore all photographs taken in a given location regardless of who took the  photo, and recreate now dis-articulated photo strips which provide the images in the order in which they were taken. Through Photogrammer, users can contextualize a single photo within the entire FSA project which allows them to better understand how the project crafted particular narratives of American life in the period between the Great Depression and World War II. Projects like Photogrammar return us to the provocation Trachtenberg offered to American Studies. What does an image mean and how does it shape our understanding of the past?

Read entire article at Society for U.S. Intellectual History