The Pivot of the World
Photography and Its Nation
232 pp., 6 x 9 in, 50 b&w illus.
- Published: February 17, 2006
- Publisher: The MIT Press
A study of three photographic projects that emerged in the 1950s—The Family of Man, Robert Frank's The Americans, and Bernd and Hilla Becher's typological record of industrial architecture—that expressed the modern desire for social belonging and the dream of nation.
The old dream of social belonging and political sovereignty—the dream of nation—was fraught with anxiety and contradiction for many artists and intellectuals in the 1950s. On the one hand, memories of the Second World War remained vivid and the chauvinism that had enabled it threatened to return with the growing tensions of the Cold War. On the other hand, the need to bind together into a new global identity—into a world nation or "family of man"—seemed ever more pressing as a bulwark against the rapidly expanding threat of a nuclear World War III.
The Pivot of the World looks at an exceptional effort to work out that geopolitical tension by cultural means as developed in three hugely ambitious photographic projects: The Family of Man exhibition that opened in 1955 and traveled the world for the next decade; Robert Frank's influential book The Americans, photographed in 1955-1956 and first published in 1958; and Bernd and Hilla Becher's typological record of industrial architecture, begun in 1957 and continuing today. Each of these projects worked to release the dream of nation—of belonging and sovereignty—from its old civic trappings through the medium of photography's serial form, in the experience of one photograph followed by another and another and another, so that all seem at once intimately connected and at the same time autonomous and distinct. Innovations in the serial composition of photographic form could open new possibilities for social form while the modern desire for political belonging could be made cosmopolitan, could be globalized—but in the most human of ways. This epic sense of purpose lasted only for a moment—it had already passed by the beginning of the 1960s—but it bears particular interest for any historical understanding of the contest over globalization that continues to hold such great consequence for us now.
Blake Stimson never masks his commitment to a political understanding of photographic representation, but in focusing on its reception, he brings a phenomenological sensitivity as well as psychoanalytic theory to bear on the articulation of its aesthetic power.
Keith Moxey, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Art History, Columbia University
Pivot of the World provides a powerful, magisterial reinterpretation of photography's place in the postwar 1950s. With elegance and economy, and marshaling a wide and sophisticated range of theories, Blake Stimson recovers a fleeting, fragile, and, until now, forgotten moment when photographs had the capacity to imagine for their viewers a different way of belonging in a world on the verge of nuclear holocaust. His is an ambitious, eye-opening, and relevant book.
Anthony W. Lee, Mount Holyoke College, author of Painting on the Left and Diane Arbus: Family Albums